Terrorism takes many forms; all insidious, devastating, and unfathomable for the great majority of the world. The questions following such a tragedy are always the same: who is responsible; why did they do this; how can such senseless violence still happen?
And the response, regrettably, is always the same as well.
While there is an initial outpouring of empathy and support from the international community, cries for vengeance and retaliation always break through the sorrow. We saw this yesterday, when over one hundred people were killed, and many more injured, by calculated terrorist attacks in Paris. What began as shock and sadness quickly devolved into mob-fueled internet hatred, plucked from the palette of Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, and the like, and splattered across my Facebook feed.
“Bomb ISIS, kill them all!”
“Nuke ISIS, no more threats.”
“I want the heads of ISIS fighters put on display in Paris and sent to the families of the victims.”
It is easy to understand these sentiments. It is perfectly reasonable to feel anger towards the perpetrators of such massacres. But when your proposed solution is more akin to the plot of Se7en than anything else, perhaps it’s time for some self-reflection.
More than anything, I want terrorism to be eradicated. But that doesn’t mean I would condone everything to reach that goal. Many have suggested that the only way we can stop these attacks is by eradicating extremist groups through force. And maybe these people are right. But there are costs for such violence.
How much are we willing to give up to secure our safety? Civilian lives are at risk if we retaliate via airstrikes; American lives would undoubtedly be lost in a boots-on-the-ground invasion. More or less than would be without large-scale action? I don’t know.
What if we were able to kill all extremists without losing any other lives? I’m certain that many would readily embrace this end-all hypothetical. But it’s not as simple as that. I’m sure many of these extremists have families. What should we do with their children? Kill them? Let them live? At what age does one become an extremist? Maybe we could use puberty as an effective cutoff.
Even if we were able to eliminate every single extremist in the world, we would create a cultural vacuum. Where fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, children and grandchildren, friends and neighbors once stood would be nothing but death. You can try to explain to a child why it was necessary to kill his or her parent, but all that child is going to hear are justifications of why you took it upon yourself to take the life of their loved one.
And in the end, is that really any different then the terrorism that prompted retaliation? Sure, they initiated it, but we have long since passed the time where eye-for-an-eye was an accepted metric for punishment.
It is this very kind of retaliatory policy that allows geopolitical conflicts to fester for generations. Once we begin killing each other, we will never be short of reasons for vengeance; it won’t even matter why we are fighting, only that WE need to kill THEM, and THEY need to kill US.
This is hardly a constructive means of achieving peace. We need to recognize that extremists, while destructive, distasteful individuals, are people too.
They are not Satan. They are not demons.
These are people who have a certain set of ideas, stemming from their particular instantiation of faith, or their heritage, or their upbringing. Their ideas and actions are, in large part, the product of their environment. They are not harbingers of evil from the depths of Hell, killing willy-nilly because they derive pleasure from their own malevolence.
These are people who have seen friends killed in American drone strikes. People who have been held in totalitarian regimes uplifted by Western Imperialism.
These are PEOPLE.
And while our impulse may be to impose upon them the pain, the loss that we all feel, it is an impulse we have to fight. If we give in to the fleeting satisfaction and closure of vengeance, then we are no better than the ones over which we claim such moral superiority.
The terrorist attacks yesterday in Paris claimed the lives of many; let’s be sure that they don’t steal our humanity as well.