I’m sitting in the aftermath of Paris, feeling emotions tear me apart. One of the emotions is joy. My daughter, who lives there, is safe.
Has “joy” ever felt so troubling?
The aftermath of Paris seems likely to be intensified (“pitiless”) bombing raids in Syria, closed borders, heightened fear-based security and the deletion of “the gray zones of coexistence” across the planet.
Oh, it’s so nice to have an enemy who is truly evil! And the logic of war is so seductive. It simplifies all these complex emotions. Just watch the news.
The news is that terror wins. Indeed, terror is the cornerstone of civilization.
I couldn’t get that notion out of my head. That’s because I couldn’t stop thinking about an act of extraordinary terror that took place just over a dozen years ago, and its relevance to the world’s current state of shock and chaos. Doing so made it impossible to contemplate the raw savagery of the ISIS killings in Paris and Beirut and everywhere else — the “my God!” of it all, as innocent lives are cut short with such indifference — in a simplistic context of us vs. them.
In March of 2003, the U.S. launched its invasion of Iraq with a bombing campaign called “shock and awe,” consisting of some 1,700 air sorties over the country that killed, according to Iraq Body Count, over 7,400 civilians.
Thinking about that number simply in the context of the 129 confirmed dead and 300-plus injured in Paris, let’s consider, one more time, the words of Harlan K. Ullman and James P. Wade, whose 1996 publication, Shock and Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance, provided the strategic rationale for the 2003 bombing campaign:
“The intent here is to impose a regime of Shock and Awe through delivery of instant, nearly incomprehensible levels of massive destruction directed at influencing society writ large, meaning its leadership and public, rather than targeting directly against military or strategic objectives. . . .
“The employment of this capability against society and its values, called ‘counter-value’ … is massively destructive strikes directly at the public will of the adversary to resist. . . .
“One recalls from old photographs,” they wrote, “. . . the comatose and glazed expressions of survivors of the great bombardments of World War I and the attendant horrors and death of trench warfare. These images and expressions of shock transcend race, culture, and history. Indeed, TV coverage of Desert Storm” — referring to the 1991 U.S. bombing campaign against Iraq — “vividly portrayed Iraqi soldiers registering these effects of battlefield Shock and Awe.”
We launched our war on Iraq with the intent to commit terror on a scale ISIS could only dream of. The relevance of this is inescapable, not simply because it makes the United States and NATO brothers in terror with ISIS, but also because the war shattered Iraq and caused the death and displacement of millions more people and, ultimately, created the conditions in which ISIS was able to come to power.
What’s haunting to me is the absence of this shockingly relevant recent history from most mainstream coverage of the Paris killings — or more to the point, the absence of almost any sort of trans-war consciousness, you might say, from the discussion of what we ought to do next.
Considering that bombing campaigns, and war itself, are not only the equivalent of terror (“writ large”), but also wildly ineffective and counterproductive, producing, in the long term, pretty much the opposite of what rational, non-war-mongers crave, the failure of politicians and mainstream media types to reach beyond a riled militarism in their reaction to the medieval terror in which ISIS specializes bodes poorly, I fear, for the future of humanity.
My daughter, who last Friday night had been at a rehearsal for an upcoming poetry event, found herself, at 10 p.m., as she was leaving a tavern called Les Caves St.-Sabin, in the middle of the chaos. As she and her friends stepped into the street, someone came running past warning people to get back inside. They only learned, in bits and pieces, the enormity of what was still happening in their city. She spent the night at the tavern, a decorated basement that felt, she said, like a “medieval fallout shelter.” In the morning, the metro was running again and she returned to her apartment. Only then did the horror hit her with full ferocity. She sat and cried, then got up and went to work.
But the tears continue, if only in silence. These are tears writ large. They swell beyond Paris and beyond Europe and the West to the broken, bombed, war-ravaged nations of the Third and Fourth World, the source of the planet’s 60 million refugees. This is the world of ISIS. Instead of continuing to bomb this world, in our fear and anger, we could try to understand it.
“ISIS is the first group since Al Qaeda to offer these young men a way to defend their dignity, family, and tribe.”
So wrote Lydia Wilson, a research fellow at the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict at Oxford University, in a recent piece for The Nation. She and her colleagues, in an attempt to do just that — understand those who have given over their lives to ISIS — recently interviewed ISIS prisoners of war in Iraq and, in the process, found their humanity. Mostly they were young men in their 20s who grew up in the wake of the American occupation of Iraq, that is to say, in the midst of brutal civil war.
“The Americans came,” one of them told her. “They took away Saddam, but they also took away our security. I didn’t like Saddam, we were starving then, but at least we didn’t have war. When you came here, the civil war started.”
Violence begets violence, war begets war. Knowing this is the starting place. It’s time to start over.