Fooled by fear: ISIS, global risks, and the legitimacy of war


dreamstime_l_33695347“How can you have a war on terrorism when war itself is terrorism?” ― Howard Zinn

When the German sociologist Ulrich Beck came up with his concept of World Risk Society in the 70s, he probably didn’t forego how useful this term would be to policy-makers to analyse the world forty years later. Beck argued that modernity, after a period of industrialisation and progress, had reached a second phase where men were now dealing with the negative side effects of this industrialisation, such as terrorism and climate change. These risks, he argued, are global. They can reach everyone anywhere, are unlimited in time, and are therefore increasingly difficult to predict. These aspects, however, does not prevent society to try and put a lot of efforts in managing them, by taking all kind of preemptive actions. In short, the less you know, the more you act.

This notion of global risk quickly became seductive to policy-makers, as pictured by Donald Rumsfeld expressing himself in 2002 at the Department of Defense. Then Secretary of States of the United States, Rumsfeld talked about the potential link between the Iraqi government and terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda by using the term ‘unknown-unknown’ risk. Picturing it as unbounded, unlimited, and unpredictable, Rumsfeld argued that this global risk offered all the reasons to go and engage time, money and human energy in the Middle East, apparently. That way, he legitimated the American interventions that would follow in Afghanistan.

The Parisian events that happened on Friday the 13th of November do have a taste of the apocalypse that reigned post September 11 in the United States. The French people are stunned, in pain, afraid and devastated, most understandably. But after the first wave of shock and pain, it is necessary to reflect on this feeling of vulnerability and to assess the risks of terrorism in a reasonable manner, in order not to fall into the trap that the United States fell in post 9/11. Yes, ISIS is indeed recruiting its forces both in Europe and in the Middle East, its agents travelling around almost freely and attacking in various places. Yes, these attacks can happen at any time. ISIS appears as the global risk by definition. Or, to say it better, it has succeeded in being perceived as global in the mind of western policy-makers, a new unknown-unknown.

What underlies the assessment of a risk? It is always a subjective process, a social endeavour. I will value some risks differently than other people. I do not care to travel by plane but driving makes me uneasy, when others will dread flying. Our deepest fears, our values, our instincts, and our past, are all factors that impact our risk assessment on a daily basis. This is all the more true when some risks are being pictured as global, unbounded and unpredictable. That is exactly what groups like ISIS have understood, and why our policy-makers are reacting in the wrong way.

The role of politicians is to come up with a risk assessment that is detached from subjectivity as much as possible: as objective as can be. Comparison of types of risk, historical evaluation, quantitative analysis. Whatever the methods might be, the assessment will be crucial to ensure that the policies aimed at managing these risks will be balanced and effective. Exaggerating a risk can lead to unadapted and counter-effective policy making, such as foreign interventions.

As the British independent journalist George Monbiot inclined us to do recently to assess the risk of Islamic Extremism in the UK, let’s put things into perspective: “Diet, smoking, alcohol, loneliness, the slow collapse of the NHS, child poverty, air pollution, traffic accidents, lack of exercise” are all far bigger mortal risks to the people in the UK. Yet, as shown by the headlines in mainstream media, terrorism has set the bar high in terms of infusing terror – it is succeeding in its aims. Another way to put things into perspective is to compare deaths linked to terrorism in Europe historically, for various eras. While the Global terrorism database does mention 2015 as the deadliest year of the 21st century, the institution recalls that 1986-2000 was worse in terms of casualties due to terrorism in Europe.

What happened so far in France at the government level? A risk appreciation of recent events that draws upon the fear and sadness of the people and pictures ISIS as a global threat that requires foreign interventions to prevent further attacks. An ensuing narrative that presents France being at war. What kind of war is that? Did two nations declare war and mobilise against each other? This discourse is extremely problematic as it recognises ISIS as a state. Most importantly, it legitimates recent military actions in Syria, presenting them as the main solution to the problem.

Let us not forget the results of the United States ‘waging war’ against global terrorism after Rumsfeld designated it the great unknown-unknown. A recent report from the International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) recently came up with an horrifying number of around 1.3 million people who died in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan subsequently to US interventions since 2001. As Stalin is believed to have said, “the death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” Well, this is all the more true today when looking at the way the West reacts to terrorism in the world. Were these deaths at least worth the results? The ongoing presence of the Taliban today in Afghanistan and Pakistan speaks for itself, and of course one can easily see how ISIS is partially a by-product of foreign interventions in the region. Bombs don’t kill ideas, it seems.

Yes, terrorism is a risk, as Paris events have shown one more time, we shall not deny that. At a personal level many tragedies ensued from these attacks, nurturing among the Parisians a feeling of dread and mourning. However, on the policy front, this risk should be treated with reason and a cool head, in order to identify solutions that work instead of being counter-productive. There are sensible ways for the French government to respond to the risk of terrorism: at the domestic level, we can reinforce security services and increase cooperation on a European basis, while making sure that some checks and balances are inscribed in the French constitution to prevent this expanded security to annihilate civil liberties in the long run. It is unacceptable that Abdelhamid Abaaoud the brain of these attacks had been able to travel into and through Europe from Syria at least twice on the past year. Around 11,000 people are inscribed on the list of French services as potential threats to national security. Yet approximately 500 people are employed to monitor them. That is not enough. We also need to work on a programme aimed at de-radicalisation of youth that truly assess the motivations and forms of frustration that helps ISIS to recruit young Europeans. This implies questioning the socio-economic model at the heart of French society, going deep into countering racism from all sides, and addressing its colonial past.

At the international level, France needs to focus on assessing the impact of the various Turkish and Saudi supports to ISIS and to act on the diplomatic scene with firmness and courage, to encourage them to cease these supports. This commitment would imply putting vested interests aside, a difficult task. Whatever the solutions will be, waging a war in Syria on the argument that terrorism is a global threat is not part of them. Let’s not fall into the trap. France will be judged on its measure and ability to decentre itself from its fear and to look at terrorism for what it is, in order to tackle it effectively.


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