So it’s come to this. Now they’re blowing up little girls.
As the pieces get picked up, Manchester, like Nice, like Paris, like New York, will regain its composure, life will go on, and the lives of the many who loved the dead will be forever haunted, some by sadness and loss, some perhaps by bitterness. Another strike on another soft target, a feat which is neither clever nor difficult. Somewhere, one supposes, somebody is gloating, maybe thinking mission accomplished.
Mission accomplished? How?
If terror has an objective that would actually benefit those who inflict it, you wonder why the various disaffected boys who throw in their lot with ISIS and Al Qaeda never realize that they’re failing miserably. It makes us all look over our shoulders, yes. It ruins lives. It sometimes goads us into counter-productive overreactions that end with us surrendering hard-won freedoms, and launching wars that never end, but just beget more wars.
All true. And that benefits them how, exactly? It’s said, on the basis of solid evidence (however unhinged it sounds), that the core belief of the founders of ISIS is that Armageddon is coming, and it’s their job to see that it does, by drawing the armies of the hated West into combat in the Middle East. Really, though? That’s what the rank and file really believes? That’s why kids born in Brussels and Birmingham leave home to join the fray in some God-forsaken sandlot in Iraq?
Maybe it was heady at the start, when they seemed to be all-conquering. They pulled off their smash and grab and seized themselves a sad excuse for a caliphate, and now they have their war, but if you’re a jihadist with visions of glory and conquest, how long until you figure out that you’re not getting Armageddon, or even keeping your sorry-assed Caliphate, you’re just getting a JDAM dropped with impunity by an orbiting B-52? There will always be hard-core fanatics, but can there be that many kids, in their tens of thousands, who never catch on, never weary of the endless failure? Or perhaps, as they squat behind rubble dodging Hellfire missiles fired from pilotless airborne hunter-killers called Reapers, they smell victory?
History is, of course, replete with such lunacy, often effected on a national scale, and once you’ve studied the past enough, you can’t help but despair at how lousy we are at learning from our stupid mistakes. It’s not like the terrorists have a monopoly on learning disabilities. I mean, did Saddam really think he was going to be allowed to keep Kuwait? He must have, right? Did Tojo think that once he’d turned the Western Pacific into a Japanese lake, that was going to be it, fait accompli, and everybody would just get used to it? It would seem so. Or maybe he thought that he had enough might at his disposal to keep it, no matter who tried to take it back? What for, anyway? What, that’s better than just selling us stuff and getting rich, as Japan eventually did? I’ve often wondered whether some 30-something German businessman ever roars down the autobahn at 200 KPH in his Audi and asks himself, what was it all for, that awful interlude when the home of Beethoven and Goethe lost its collective mind? Leave out disgust at the soul-destroying genocidal immorality and just do a dispassionate cost-benefit analysis, if that’s what hammers home the lesson. If Hitler had achieved every dirty little thing he’d hoped, how could a modern German’s life be any better in the Thousand Year Reich than it is today in sane and civil Germany, NATO ally and keystone of the EU?
What makes the modern day suicide bomber think that anything he can do will actually matter? Gruesome as they are, these events are tiny pin-pricks in any larger view of things. Murdering a few harmless kids hardly presents an existential threat to a country that once hunkered down each night beneath fleets of Nazi bombers. In WW I, the Germans shelled Paris with a gun so big you could only move it on train tracks, and it could hit the city from 120 kilometres away. The craters were filled, and I hear that Paris is still quite pleasant. Maybe none of them has ever seen a photo of what was left of Dresden in 1945? Or do they suppose that Western societies can emerge intact from that sort of thing, and yet actually be vulnerable to what they can do by driving a truck down a sidewalk? Do they suppose they’ll be more successful than the IRA, the Red Brigade, the Basques separatists who used to bomb targets in France? Have they heard of Black September? Did those guys push Israel off the map? Why does anybody think that this time, it’s different?
Even 9/11, the attack that changed history, did nothing more helpful to their cause than serve as the catalyst for a chain reaction that still rains death and destruction upon many thousands of Muslims, both combatant and innocent, throughout the Middle East. In his final days, even Osama bin Laden was decrying that it was mainly Muslims getting killed. Where were all the infidel mass casualty events that were supposed to follow 9/11, the bold attacks causing thousands upon thousands of deaths with metronomic regularity? We were all traumatized over here, sure, and we’ve done some fairly idiotic knee-jerk things in response, I’d argue, but though we may shake in our boots we’re actually, as a civilization, pretty much unscathed, even as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan burn. Meanwhile, if you were somehow oblivious to recent history, you could visit Ground Zero today without realizing that anything particularly nasty had ever happened there, until you started investigating the memorial and the museum. New towers rose where the old ones fell. A wing was blown out of the Pentagon, and was rebuilt. Three thousand plus Americans were killed, leaving who knows how many thousand shattered survivors behind, but life went on. New recruits, inspired by the sacrifices made that day, filled the ranks to replace all the lost first responders. Young people flocked to join the military. And nothing of any benefit to the attackers and their aims was accomplished.
In America alone, over 30,000 die each year on the highways, and about 11,000 more are shot dead – add in suicides, and you can bump that up another twenty odd thousand. That’s a toll equal to the losses from the entire Viet Nam War. Any country that can shrug that off every year and go about its business can’t really be injured in any serious way by the odd terror attack. All you can achieve is to make them afraid, and that doesn’t really help much, does it? I doubt there’s much comfort to be had around campfires in Raqqa from knowing that the NSA is now invading everybody’s privacy, everywhere on Earth; it’s proof that they managed to instill fear, all right, but all it means for them is that they’ll draw Strike Eagles like flies if they try to use their cell phones. I suspect it isn’t much solace, as the rounds pour down around them from airborne Gatling guns, that all of us over here are now forced to take off our damned shoes at the airport. I doubt their lives are any better now that guided bombs are falling like hail everywhere they try to hide. Yippee, we made them paranoid and vicious! Yay! Meanwhile, the B-52s keep circling, the drones keep hunting, the JDAMs keep dropping, they die in their thousands, and maybe for some that was the whole idea, but that’s not exactly the end game laid out in the glossy brochure, is it?
We’ll never win the war on terror, of course. Anybody can make a bomb out of a pressure cooker and a box of nails, and apparently, there’ll always be someone who will. The best thing we can do is stop calling it a “war”. If ISIS is ground down to a powder, as I imagine it will be, that won’t stop some guy with a litany of gripes and the usual bad ideas from walking into a hotel lobby in San Francisco with five sticks of dynamite strapped to his chest. It won’t stop some teenager who was born in Hoboken from claiming affiliation with ISIS, or whichever group is out there flogging its propaganda on the internet. It won’t stop some half-assed army of misogynists in Africa from aligning themselves with other such self-starting franchise operations. We can keep a lid on it, we can thwart the vast majority of it, but we can’t completely put a stop to it, and every time it happens here at home it isn’t really going to matter in the long run, any more than the Italian Anarchists who tried to blow up Wall Street back in 1920 did anything that mattered, any more than what Timothy McVeigh did in Oklahoma mattered. Traders still trade, and I’ll bet the masters of the Universe at Goldman Sachs never even heard of any Italians trying to blow up Wall Street. McVeigh brought down a building, but the Federal Government didn’t fold up its tent.
As horrible as it is for all of those who suffer directly, as scared as the rest of us become, they might as well be going at an elephant with a pair of nail clippers. Lives will be lost to acts of terror, just as they will when kids don’t get vaccinated, stray bullets from gang shoot-outs are soaked up by innocent strangers, and teens text while driving. We have to start thinking of terrorism as just one more facet of the ongoing tragedy that never ends, as pointless as an outbreak of measles in 2017, as futile as being run over by a drunk, as utterly random as being eradicated by a tire that spun off a passing 18-wheeler. When we elevate terrorism falsely to the status of existential threat, we end up doing ourselves a great deal of unnecessary harm. The sad truth is that we can take it, and do all the time in a hundred different contexts, and yes, that’s ugly.
Don’t despair. Focus instead on the miracle that sometimes, things get better, sometimes almost inconceivably better. I was reminded of this watching a news story a while back during the height of the refugee migration from Syria into Europe. So many people being shunned by every country they could reach – except one. A reporter, I forget who, was travelling with one migrant group, when a wave of elation passed through them. Salvation! Off in the distance, they could see armed German border guards!
Think about that. Semitic peoples finding salvation in the arms of welcoming Germans. It’s enough to make you weep. If that can happen, what cannot? If that can happen, maybe one day the land the Syrians fled will be flourishing, peaceful, and free.