Respond kindly, not in kind

When you strike back, the terrorists win.

Posted by Wisq on November 15, 2015

The other day, I wrote a short satirical Facebook post condemning the drone strike that took out “Jihadi John”, and specifically David Cameron’s public statement on it:

Good news, everyone! If you think your neighbour is a murderer, you’re now allowed to blow up his house with him inside. (Or possibly someone else, if you can’t quite tell who it is from your vantage point, many thousands of feet away.)

If the cops object, just tell them that “this was an act of self-defence. It was the right thing to do.”

Now, it’s not that I think “John” was a good person, or that we shouldn’t have stopped him. What I object to is the notion that using a drone to blow him up — or someone they were (only) “reasonably certain” was him — was somehow, in David Cameron’s words, “an act of self-defence.”

It’s not self-defence. “Jihadi John” was not about to board a plane, fly over to Nevada or wherever, and kill the drone operator that pulled the trigger. This was an assassination, plain and simple.

Moreover, it’s something we would never do to a U.S. or U.K. citizen. He would get a chance to surrender, and a fair trial, and (in the U.K. and many U.S. states) he wouldn’t even be at risk of being executed. Even if he didn’t surrender and got himself shot, our paramedics would do their best to keep him alive to stand trial.

The police would do all this, even at high risk to themselves, because everyone gets a basic set of human rights — even criminals. They would never just say “ahh, it’s too risky to even try to arrest him, let’s just blow him up with a missile”.

Yes, some of these rights are hard or risky to ensure in a battle zone. But drone strikes are the ultimate concession to expediency and cowardice. They indicate that you’re not even interested in proper justice any more.

The response to my post was underwhelming: Zero likes, one reply, and that was to argue that it was indeed “the right thing to do” and that he was just a dead combatant “in a war, which is what this is”. We politely argued a bit (and agreed on a few points), but eventually had to drop it.

As it happens, I made my post just hours before the attack on Paris, and (like many Westerners) I was unaware of the attack on Beirut. As with all other decent human beings, my heart and love goes out to all those affected in both tragedies.

In the flurry of tweets and blog posts that have followed these events, one article in particular stands out to me.

It’s well worth a full read, but in a nutshell, it discusses how nobody really seems to care about Arab lives — including Arabs themselves. Everyone was quick to hoist France’s colours to show solidarity; Lebanon’s colours were nowhere to be seen. The news branded the Beirut attack as “explosion in Hezbollah stronghold” as if it were a good thing. And many Islamophobes weren’t as circumspect as that.

This lack of concern for Arab deaths also happens to be the same point I was trying to make in my Facebook post.

When we drone-strike a vehicle or a building because we think a terrorist is inside (and any civilian casualties are “worth the risk”), we’re basically saying, “Arab lives aren’t as important as Western lives, so let’s risk their lives instead of our own”.

When we assassinate people without trial, without a siege or a chance to surrender, in a country that we occupy and ostensibly have some degree of control over, we’re saying “Arab lives don’t deserve a chance at an arrest and a trial, the same as any Western life would get”.

When we say “we can’t reason with these people so let’s just kill them”, how can we take the moral high ground when that’s exactly what they would say about us? We like to think we’re superior because we target combatants (“the enemy”) and at least try to avoid harming civilians. But to them, “civilians” are western Muslims, and “the enemy” are everyone else. (And can you really blame them? We let our governments invade their countries on obviously false pretences. We decided that 3,000 of our lives lost was ample justification to kill over 500,000 of theirs.)

When people see their friends and loved ones getting killed by the West in the most standoffish and cowardly way possible, do you think they say to themselves, “they were ISIS, they had it coming”? Or do they take up arms and join the movement?

We’re playing a game of whack-a-mole against a hydra. Every head we whack means two more pop up. We’re not doing very well at it.

Whenever a terrorist event happens, there’s talk of “not giving in to terrorism”, of “not being terrorised”. How “if you (do x), then the terrorists win”.

This is a good philosophy, in theory. Unfortunately, people have completely misunderstood it.

It does not mean “invade the terrorists’ country”, and it does not mean “blow up the terrorists”. This would be akin to telling a bull “don’t give in to the bullfighter’s taunts!” and then watching it try to gore the bullfighter to stop him from taunting. (This usually doesn’t end well for the bull.)

Instead, this is what it really means: “If you strike back at the terrorists, then the terrorists win.” Or, more generally: “If you respond to terrorism, then the terrorists win.”

If that sounds silly to you, then consider that there’s some evidence that our reaction is exactly what ISIS wants:

They want a massive backlash. They want us to step up our drone strikes. They want the more Islamophobic of us to further alienate our own Muslim citizens. This is how they recruit, and this is how they escalate the conflict.

Furthermore, this is also exactly what the political far-right want. George W Bush once famously stated that “either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists”. That’s the situation that both sides want: Eliminate “the grayzone” and ensure that nobody is allowed to remain neutral or indifferent.

Once you do that, both sides can get away with doing anything they want. They’ll have all the power they want, and we’ll all be the lesser for it.

So if the correct response to terrorism isn’t to attack the terrorists, then what is?

Simple: Ignore it.

Yes, this sounds heretical when you’re thinking about the 3,000 dead from 9/11, or the hundreds dead in terrorist incidents since then. But a few statistics may help:

Over 13,000 people have died worldwide in aircraft accidents since 2001. That’s over 4x as many who died in 9/11.

Over 30,000 Americans die of firearms-related deaths each year. That’s 10 nine-elevens per year.

An estimated 435,000 Americans die each year from smoking tobacco. That’s 145 nine-elevens.

Or how about the 17,000 Americans who die from drug abuse each year? Think about that: The War on Drugs has become a total shit show, and many people advocate shutting it down — yet it’s over five times as justifiable (in terms of body count) per year than the War on Terror was for even a single year.

Where’s our “War on Traffic Accidents”? Our “War on Heart Disease”? Why aren’t we drone-striking the CEOs of cigarette companies? We’ve accepted that these are just background noise — symptoms of living in an imperfect world.

Terrorism is one of those, and so much less harmful. Yet it pushes all our buttons and makes us do almost anything to prevent it. We give up our civil liberties. We lash out at Muslims in our own communities. That’s the power of terrorism.

So what should we do instead?

Take reasonable, non-rights-infringing steps to prevent terrorism. Respond quickly with help and love when an attack happens. Comfort the survivors. Mourn those we’ve lost. Arrest the perpetrators, if they’re still alive.

And when the dust settles and the coast is clear — go back to your normal lives. Don’t think less of the Middle East, or your Muslim acquaintances. Don’t change how you think at all. Don’t try to exact revenge. Seek justice when possible, and learn to accept when it’s not.

Because the only way to deprive terrorism of its power is to ignore it.

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