By sheer coincidence, a book I wrote called “Don’t Panic: Islamic State, Terrorism and Today’s Middle East” was published just before the terrorist attacks in Paris. So naturally everybody interviewing me about the book asked me if it is time to panic now. They couldn’t resist it. And of course I replied no, it is not time to panic.
If a train derailed in the Paris Metro, killing 130 people and injuring over 300, the story would dominate the news in France for around 24 hours, 48 hours tops. In other countries it would definitely be only a one-day story: just one more transport accident, in a world where trains collide, planes crash and ships sink from time to time.
But if it’s not an accident – if human beings deliberately caused those deaths – then the media feeding frenzy starts. The story is twenty times as big, and it can dominate the news schedules for a week. Most people in Europe, North America and the Middle East have watched at least several hours of coverage of the Paris events and their aftermath – as long as a feature film – and even in more distant parts of the world it has been the event of the week.
There is nothing puzzling about this phenomenon. It’s perfectly natural for people to be more interested in murder than in mere mechanical malfunctions. But the sheer volume of the coverage makes a terrorist attack feel like a much bigger event than it actually is. Even if you live a very long way from where the real action is.
If you live in Syria, the threat isn’t just terrorism. Islamic State is already a major threat to the many Syrians it hates (Shias, Christians, Druze, and even Sunni Muslims who have worked for the government or fought in the army). If IS gained control of the whole country, the number of Syrian refugees would double or triple.
If you live in Iraq, you are much less at risk, for Islamic State has little hope of expanding into the Shia-dominated parts of the country still under Baghdad’s control, or into the areas under Kurdish control.
If you live in Turkey or other Arab countries – indeed, in any other Muslim country – you may face a serious threat from home-grown extremists, but all they get from IS is encouragement and maybe a bit of training. It’s really a domestic problem.
If you live in France or the United States or China, your only worry is the occasional terrorist attack that may have been encouraged by Islamic State – but the people who carry it out are mostly locals. You deal with that sort of thing just the way you dealt with other terrorist threats in the past: border controls, enhanced security measures at public events, and good intelligence.
If Western air forces want to bomb Islamic State too, by all means do so, but they will be all alone in that job. The Arab states that are allegedly part of President Obama’s “coalition” have all withdrawn their air forces and are bombing Yemen instead. And the Turks are almost exclusively bombing the Kurds (including the Kurds fighting Islamic State), except when they shoot down a Russian plane.
The Russian and “coalition” (mostly American) bombs falling on Islamic State have stopped its expansion, at least for the moment, and the recent air attacks on the tanker-trucks that carry the black-market oil out have certainly cut into its income, but it is not about to fall.
As for “boots on the ground”, forget it. The only people fighting Islamic State on the ground are the Kurds and what’s left of the Syrian army after four years of war. The Syrian army was on the brink of collapse last summer before the Russian bombing campaign saved it, and it still lacks the strength to recapture much territory. Islamic State is going to be around for a while.
Stopping Western air attacks on Islamic State might save some Western cities from terrorist attacks, but even that is not guaranteed. Islamic State is competing with al-Qaeda for support in the Muslim and especially the Arab world, and spectacular acts of terrorism are good recruiting tools. Islamic State also thinks it is following a divinely ordained script, which makes it relatively impervious to normal calculations of strategic advantage.
Does this mean terrorist attacks inspired by Islamic State will continue for months or years no matter what the West does? Probably.
Within living memory Western countries have fought real wars that killed millions of
their citizens, and they didn’t buckle under the strain. The scale of the threat they face now is so much smaller that it is ridiculous to call it a war at all, and yet they flap about like frightened poultry.
If terrorist attacks on the scale of Paris are the greatest threat facing the West, then these are very fortunate countries.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“If you live in Iraq…control” and “If you live in Turkey…problem”)
Thursday is the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, and in the course of the day you are almost bound to hear or read somebody claiming that it “changed history.” It was a very big battle, after all, and it would be a century before Europe saw war on that scale again. But did the events of 18 June 1815 “change history”? Probably not.
The really decisive battle was fought a year and a half before that near Leipzig in Germany: the ‘Battle of the Nations’. Three times more men were involved in that battle than fought at Waterloo. There were many more battles before the Russian, Austrian and Prussian armies entered Paris and Napoleon finally abdicated as Emperor of the French in the spring of 1814, but he never won another battle.
Napoleon was given a mini-kingdom on the island of Elba, off the Italian coast, to keep himself busy. The victors began to put Europe back together after twenty years of almost unbroken war, around 3 million combat deaths, and a comparable number of civilian casualties. And after only ten months, Napoleon escaped from Elba and went back to France for another try.
But it was really already over. The British (the paymasters of the coalition), the Austrians, the Prussians and the Russians were all still mobilised, and their armies started closing in on France. In the ‘Hundred Days’, Napoleon managed to lure many men who had fought for him in past wars back into his new army, but it was pure nostalgia.
He moved fast, hoping to defeat the British army in what is now Belgium before the other allies arrived to reinforce it, and he almost succeeded. The British commander, the Duke of Wellington, said that the battle of Waterloo was “the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life.” In the end, late in the afternoon, the Prussian (German) army showed up and turned the tide. But if Napoleon hadn’t lost at Waterloo, he would have been defeated a little later.
“God is on the side of the heaviest battalions,” said Voltaire, and Napoleon agreed, just substituting “the best artillery” to demonstrate that his military knowledge was fully up to date. But his political knowledge was woefully deficient: God is actually on the side of the biggest economies, especially if they know how to turn their wealth into military power.
Britain had already overtaken France as Europe’s biggest economy (and in those days, that meant the world’s biggest economy). The industrial revolution in Britain was already into its second generation, while France had barely entered the first. Even in sheer numbers of people, a low birth rate meant that France would fall behind Russia, then behind Germany, and eventually even behind Britain in population.
So even if Napoleon could go on winning battles, he couldn’t win the war. In the end he couldn’t even win the battles. He was running out of soldiers, and his enemies had spent a generation at war learning (very expensively) to fight battles just as well as he did. Waterloo only confirmed what everybody with eyes could see already: France was finished as Europe’s superpower.
Then Britain got a century at the top (and after 500 years of Anglo-French wars, it never had to fight France again). The United States is now about 75 years into its term as the reigning superpower – and you are probably assuming that I am now going to speculate who gets the crown next. Wrong on two counts.
First of all, it’s a thorny crown, and nobody in their right mind would want it. The relevant statistic (which hides in plain sight) is that the more powerful a country is, the more wars it fights and the more people it loses. More power doesn’t give you greater security; it just gets you into more trouble.
Secondly, about half the time there is no undisputed top dog. That was the situation for the century 1600-1700, when Spain was in visible decline but France was not yet ready to assume the mantle of sole superpower. It was equally true in 1945-1990, when nuclear weapons (the great equaliser) meant that the United States and the Soviet Union were co-equal superpowers even though the US economy was far bigger than the Soviet one.
And now, with the American superpower allegedly in decline, there is obsessive speculation about when China will step in and take over the role – or might it turn out to be India instead? As though it were still the early 19th century, when France was going down and Britain was taking over. It isn’t.
Military power doesn’t deliver the goods any more. The United States has lost almost every war and mini-war it has fought in the past fifty years (except Grenada and Panama), even though it accounts for around half of the planet’s spending on defence. In the present global strategic environment, decisive victories are about as rare as unicorns.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it is probably a good thing. Victory is a much over-rated concept.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 6. (“But…nostalgia”; and “God…power”)
Left-wing, right-wing, it makes no difference. Almost every elected government, confronted with even the slightest “terrorist threat”, responds by attacking the civil liberties of its own citizens. And the citizens often cheer them on.
Last week, the French government passed a new bill through the National Assembly that vastly expanded the powers of the country’s intelligence services. French intelligence agents will now be free to plant cameras and recording devices in private homes and cars, intercept phone conversations without judicial oversight, even install “keylogger” devices that record every key stroke on a targeted computer in real time.
It was allegedly a response to the “Charlie Hebdo” attacks that killed 17 people in Paris last January, but the security services were just waiting for an excuse. Indeed, Prime Minister Manuel Valls said that the law was needed to give a legal framework to intelligence agents who are already pursuing some of these practices illegally. France, he explained, has never “had to face this kind of terrorism in our history.”
Meanwhile, over in Canada, Defence Minister Jason Kenney was justifying a similar over-reaction in by saying that “the threat of terrorism has never been greater.” Really?
In all the time since 9/11 there had never been a terrorist attack in Canada until last October, when two Canadian soldiers were killed in separate incidents. Both were low-tech, “lone wolf” attacks by Canadian converts to Islam – in one, the murder weapon was simply a car – but the public (or at least the media) got so excited that the government felt the need to “do something.”
The Anti-Terror Act, which has just passed the Canadian House of Commons, gives the Canadian Security Intelligence Service the right to make “preventive” arrests in Canada. It lets police arrest and detain individuals without charge for up to seven days. The bill’s prohibitions on speech that “promotes or glorifies terrorism” are so broad and vague that any extreme political opinion can be criminalised.
In short, it’s the usual smorgasbord of crowd-pleasing measures that politicians throw out when they want to look tough. It won’t do much to stop terrorist attacks, but that doesn’t matter as the threat is pretty small anyway.
France has 65,000,000 million people, and it lost 17 of them to terrorism in the past year. Canada has 36,000,000 million people, and it has lost precisely 2 of them to domestic terrorism in the past twenty years. In what way were those lives more valuable than those of the hundreds of people who die each year in France and Canada from less newsworthy crimes of violence like murder?
Why haven’t they changed the law to stop more of those crimes? If you monitored everybody’s electronic communications all the time, and bugged their homes and cars, you could probably cut the murder rate in half. The price, of course, would be that you have to live in an Orwellian surveillance state, and we’re not willing to pay that price. Not just to cut the murder rate.
The cruel truth is that we put a higher value on the lives of those killed in terrorist attacks because they get more publicity. That’s why, in an opinion poll last month, nearly two-thirds of French people were in favor of restricting freedoms in the name of fighting extremism – and the French parliament passed the new security law by 438 votes to 86.
The government in France is Socialist, but the opposition centre-right supported the new law too. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government in Canada is seriously right-wing, but the centre-right Liberals were equally unwilling to risk unpopularity by opposing it. On the other hand, the centre-left New Democrats and the Greens voted against, and the vote was closer in Canada: 183 to 96.
And the Canadian public, at the start 82 percent in favour of the new law, had a rethink during the course of the debate. By the time the Anti-Terror Act was passed in the House of Commons, 56 percent of Canadians were against it. Among Canadians between 18 and 34 years old, fully three-quarters opposed it.
Maybe the difference just reflects the smaller scale of the attacks in Canada, but full credit to Canadians for getting past the knee-jerk phase of their response to terrorism. Nevertheless, their parliament still passed the bill. So should we chalk all this up as two more victories for the terrorists, with an honourable mention for the Canadian public?
No, not really. Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and all the other jihadis don’t give a damn if Western democracies mutilate their own freedoms, as it doesn’t significantly restrict their own operations. The only real winners are the security forces.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 9. (“Why…rate”)
“We’re not waiting around here to die,” said Johan Dumas, one of the survivors of the siege at the kosher supermarket during the “Charlie Hebdo” terrorist attack in Paris in January. He had hidden with others in a basement cold room as the Islamist gunman roamed overhead and killed four of the hostages. So, said Dumas, he was moving to Israel to be safe.
It’s not really that simple. The seventeen victims of the terrorist attacks included some French Christians, a Muslim policeman, four Jews, and probably a larger number of people who would have categorised themselves as “none of the above.” It was a Muslim employee in the supermarket who showed Dumas and other Jewish customers where to hide, and then went back upstairs to distract the gunman. And the Middle East isn’t exactly safe for Jews.
Dumas has been through a terrifying experience. He now feels like a target in France, and no amount of reassurance from the French government that it will protect its Jewish citizens will change his mind. But Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu didn’t help much either.
What Netanyahu said after the Paris attacks was this: “This week, a special team of ministers will convene to advance steps to increase immigration from France and other countries in Europe that are suffering from terrible anti-Semitism. All Jews who want to immigrate to Israel will be welcomed here warmly and with open arms. We will help you in your absorption here in our country, which is also your country.”
He was at it again after a Jewish volunteer guarding a synagogue in Copenhagen was one of the two fatal victims of last week’s terrorist attack in Denmark. “Jews have been murdered again on European soil only because they were Jews,” he said, “and this wave of terrorist attacks – including murderous anti-Semitic attacks – is expected to continue.”
“Of course, Jews deserve protection in every country but we say to Jews, to our brothers and sisters: Israel is your home. We are preparing and calling for the absorption of mass immigration from Europe.” As you might imagine, this did not go down well with European leaders who were being told that their countries were so anti-Semitic that they are no longer safe for Jews.
It is true that five of the nineteen people killed in these two terrorist attacks in Europe since the New Year were Jewish, which is highly disproportionate. But it is also true that the killers in all cases were Islamist extremists, who also exist in large numbers in and around Israel.
French President Francois Hollande said: “I will not just let what was said in Israel pass, leading people to believe that Jews no longer have a place in Europe and in France in particular.” In Denmark Chief Rabbi Jair Melchior rebuked Netanyahu, saying that “terror is not a reason to move to Israel.”
The chair of Britain’s Parliamentary committee against anti-Semitism, John Mann, attacked Netanyahu’s statement that the only place Jews could now be safe was Israel. “Mr Netanyahu made the same remarks in Paris – it’s just crude electioneering. It’s no coincidence that there’s a general election in Israel coming up….We’re not prepared to tolerate a situation in this country or in any country in Europe where any Jews feel they have to leave.”
It IS crude electioneering on Netanyahu’s part – but it is also true that even in Britain, where there have been no recent terrorist attacks, Jews are worried. Statistically, Jews are at greater risk from terrorism in Israel, but it’s much scarier being a Jewish minority in a continent where Jews were killed in death camps only 70 years ago.
Given Europe’s long and disgraceful history of antisemitism, it’s not surprising that such sentiments persist among a small minority of the population. But at least in Western Europe (which is where most European Jews live) the great majority of people regard antisemitism as shameful, and most governments give synagogues and Jewish community centres special protection.
What European Jews fear is not their neighbours in general, but radicalised young Islamists among their Muslim fellow citizens. The Muslim minorities in the larger Western European countries range between 4 and 10 percent of the population. If only one in a hundred of them is an Islamist then Jews do face a threat in those countries.
But it is a very small threat. Nine Jews have been killed by Islamist terrorists in the European Union in the past year in three separate incidents (Belgium, France and Denmark). The Jewish population of the EU is just over one million, mostly living in France, the United Kingdom and Germany.
Nine Jewish deaths by terrorism in a year in the EU is deplorable, but it hardly constitutes a good reason for encouraging mass emigration to Israel. Still, Netanyahu has an election to fight, and this sort of thing goes down well in Israel.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 11. (“It is…Israel”; and “Given…protection”)