Sarika Rao, Marianne Keppens, Nele De Gersem and Sufiya Pathan
Terrorist attacks by so-called Muslim fundamentalists have been a common phenomenon since 9/11. Even though it is not the first time such an attack has occurred in Europe, with the Paris bombings a general feeling is rising among Europeans that things are different now, that we have entered a new phase. There are several aspects to this feeling: (1) the perception of an increased systematicity to the attacks or that they are only the beginning of a large-scale and systematic assault on the West; (2) a realisation that the attacks are aimed at all Europeans, regardless of what one does or says; (3) an awareness that there is no escaping European involvement in the wars and conflicts that are going on in the world; (4) the understanding that, if we don’t react in an adequate way now, things will go very bad. How we react today will fundamentally affect all of our lives in the coming decades. We must realise that the stakes are very high.
Here Europe could play a very important role: it could draw on its experience of two world wars to prevent a third one. Unfortunately, having the potential to do something is not sufficient. Rather than reflecting on its experience, Europe has been asleep, indifferent, and in many of its policies plainly stupid. Now that the hen has come home to roost, the only reaction Europe seems capable of is one of shock, indignation and anger: all three, the perfect recipe for disastrous policies. The one thing we know about bad policy-making is that it damages ourselves as much as it damages others. The US ‘war on terror’ of the last decennium is a witness to this, but all we seem capable of doing is more of the same and some extra.
The first steps of such damaging policies are already being taken: increased border control; closing down of borders; increasing nationalistic sentiments; more arms, ammunitions and money spent on the ‘war on terror’. In some countries, laws are being adapted to allow for separate treatment of potential terrorists: in Belgium, for instance, politicians now want to track everyone who could possibly be involved in terrorist networks with a chain around the foot. This without any form of trial or proof of crimes committed. These are measures that go in the direction of Guantanamo, sentencing outside of the judiciary system. Along with this, ridiculous safety measures are taken. To give just one example, Ghent University in Belgium has asked its faculty to address unknown people they meet in the corridor, asking them who they are and what they are looking for. Not only is such a measure utterly stupid (as if a terrorist will not have an acceptable answer ready when he is asked that question), it will create suspicion and resentment between people. Given all this, we wouldn’t be surprised if the entire idea of the European Union, built with much patience and effort in the last 100 years, breaks down in the next few years.
All this shows that we are not reacting in an adequate way. But what then would be adequate? And how to know? The answer here is very simple: by starting with a good diagnosis of the events. If we have a proper diagnosis, we can hope to find a cure.
What then is wrong with the diagnosis? Let us first look at some aspects of the phenomenon: what we see is a movement, first barely visible but now clearly identifiable as a global movement. It is a movement without borders, without nationalities, without one central organisation. It is spread all over the world and is attracting more and more people to it as we speak. It has been called by multiple names: jihadism, terrorism, Islamism and so forth. But labels do not bring understanding. On the contrary: they make us believe that we understand this phenomenon. By blindly accepting such beliefs, the world has completely accepted the logic of the movement itself and played along with its terms and conditions in the last fifteen years.
One criterion to assess the adequacy of our understanding is whether we are able to answer the following question: What makes terrorism so different from other actions of crime? What separates and differentiates it from other seemingly similar actions? The only hypothesis we have found so far that answers this question is one developed by S.N. Balagangadhara and Jakob de Roover published in the Journal of Political Philosophy in 2010. They developed a hypothesis on terrorism and suggested ways of tackling the problem. As they put it:
“Terrorism draws on a mechanism that represents crime as morally praiseworthy. That is to say, it is not a defense of a particular criminal action of some individual or another; it is a defense of ‘crime’ as such. By presenting criminal actions as morally praiseworthy, the mechanism of terrorism enables one to lend legitimacy to actions that are otherwise considered illegitimate.”
They go further to say that:
“Crime is transsubstantiated into acts of supererogation…They are not obligatory but they have the force of moral exemplars. These actions are ‘over and beyond the call of duty’ and as such are beyond the realm of moral obligation. That is, they are outside the domain of ‘moral laws’, but yet within the ethical domain.”
In this line, to see the actions of a terrorist as something sui generis, something unique and outside the realm of human understanding is to succumb to the terrorist. When John Kerry calls the attacks in Paris the work of “psychopathic monsters,” he is acknowledging and accepting the terrorist’s claim that he is performing an action that is out of the ordinary. The terrorist considers himself supererogatory and thus outside the realm of moral laws. The US and Europe in their turn consider them “insane” and hence also outside the realm of moral laws. This is how we are allowing these actions to determine not only our policies but also our experience of the world.
This is not simply an intellectual point, it has consequences in the world. Allowing someone to shape our moral world implies that they can determine what kind of actions we take and what kind of moral ideals we pursue. In this case, the success of the terrorist lies not in bombing our cities and murdering our people. His success lies in the fact that we follow the dynamics which he has launched. As said earlier, the terrorist transforms crime into an exceptionally moral, supererogatory act.
Do we see this reflected in the steps taken by Europe and the US in the last weeks? This is what happened: President Hollande undertook a massive airstrike on Syria as retaliation. He wants to reform the Constitution to give more powers to the police, allow arrest without warrant, and establish a three-month long state of emergency. More than half of the US states have decided not to accept refugees. Multiple European nations want increased border control, increased intelligence efforts and scrutiny which undermines privacy.
There is a striking similarity and pattern in all of the above responses: such reactions would have been frowned upon, considered wrong and in some instances downright unthinkable not so long ago. Yet today they appear morally praiseworthy, heroic and respectable. We are doing things today which would not be so easy to defend or justify fifty years ago, when the memory of the world wars was still fresh in our minds and the lessons learnt still vivid. Today, we act and react as if all is forgotten, unaware that terrorism breeds terrorism. In our haste to eradicate evil, we are forgetting who we are and how we got here. We are following the same lines of the terrorists and glorifying actions that are wrong and contemptible.
This is not new. By following America’s characterisation of the ‘war on terror’, we refrained from isolating the separate events as pockets of violence and criminality that are simply symptoms of an illness. Stuck in the idée-fixe that all religions should be respected, we did not split the dynamics of terrorism from the religion that Islam is. As Balagangadhara and De Roover put it:
“neither religious nor secular doctrines form the intellectual basis of terrorism. They are used in morally justifying an act that has already achieved the status of a supererogatory action.”
Islam is simply a reason, just the way “the war on terror” or “the American national interest” are. Both serve as a reason to justify and thereby repeat the same dynamic of transformation. There was one continent that could have acted as a counterweight to the vicious circle America and the terrorists were stuck in. But she was sleep-walking.
Since the Second World War, we Europeans are convinced that we need to be politically correct, respect everyone, accept that other people are justified for doing things we do not understand, and so on. This has hindered us from seeing terrorism as criminality. Doing so, however, would have solved at least part of the problem: it would have prevented us from letting criminals shape and determine our experience of the world. Perhaps it would also have reduced the attraction it holds for many of the youth today.
Here, as in other cases, we Europeans are either guided by our guilt or by our anger. In both cases we stop thinking and implement policies that are disastrous. The current refugee crisis is another instance of this: the willingness to help and the steadfastness despite criticism are commendable. But moral reasons and guilt alone are not adequate reasons to take decisions. Without thinking, Europe insisted on taking in the refugees and treating them as political refugees when they were not. They were war refugees, which meant that these people were fleeing a war and would one day return to their countries to rebuild their homes and lives. Spreading around in Europe and integrating them into European society was neither necessary nor intelligent. Humanitarian aid in the form of rescue operations, food, shelter, clothing, medical support and phone calls could have been provided in short-term comfortable camps created specially for them.
But instead: (1) Our politicians force our populations to let the refugees integrate in our societies, which cannot digest the numbers. (2) The refugees will confront mainly hate and unwillingness in the European population in the long run, so they will remember us as heartless people (“in times where we needed basic help, they would not give us a drop of water”). (3) Right-wing parties will gloriously win the next elections in many European countries. (4) The urgency for solving the volcanic situation in the Middle East is taken away. (5) However small a percentage of the refugees may consist of terrorists posing as refugees (even if it is 1%), we allowed these people to come in through open doors. Because of the previous points, these terrorists will now find a fertile ground from which to recruit. What do we achieve in the end, despite having provided humanitarian help? We create hatred, where there was no need for it. On top of that, we show the entrance to our societies, so terrorists can easily integrate together with the needy refugees. This is the consequence of not treating war refugees as war refugees.
The insights mentioned above were already published in international peer-reviewed journals. If so, why wasn’t this taken further and reflected about? What are our intellectuals doing? Why are they still spouting nonsense like some “experts” who come to the conclusion that Europeans should bow down in shame, because the current violence can be justified on the basis of European colonisation in the past or proclaiming inanities like a few other who claim that terrorism has to be “cut at the root”?
With such intellectuals, such policy-makers, such amnesia about our own past, is it surprising that the only reaction we can give is one of shock and horror? Shocking and horrifying as these attacks are, isn’t it time to go further than that and to think instead of simply reacting? Isn’t it time to realise we are at the brink of a world-wide war, if we haven’t already blithely walked into one? Until we have a thorough understanding of what is going on the only appropriate and adequate reaction is to develop one: only by understanding the mechanisms of terrorism and knowing how to prevent these from being successful, will we be able to tackle this phenomenon.