Honestly, I don’t know whether to rant or weep, neither of which are usual impulses for me. In the wake of the slaughter in Paris, I have the urge to write one of two sentences here: Paris changed everything; Paris changes nothing. Each is, in its own way, undoubtedly true. And here’s a third sentence I know to be true: This can’t end well.
Other than my hometown, New York, Paris is perhaps the city where I’ve felt most at ease. I’ve never been to Baghdad (where Paris-style Islamic State terror events are relatively commonplace); or Beirut, where they just began; or Syria’s ravaged Aleppo (thank you, Bashar al-Assad of barrel-bomb terror fame); or Mumbai (which experienced an early version of such a terror attack); or Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, now partly destroyed by the U.S.-backed Saudi air force; or Kabul, where Taliban attacks on restaurants have become the norm; or Turkey’s capital, Ankara, where Islamic State suicide bombers recently killed 97 demonstrators at a peace rally. But I have spent time in Paris. And so, as with my own burning, acrid city on September 11, 2001, I find myself particularly repulsed by the barbaric acts of civilian slaughter carried out by three well-trained, well-organized, well-armed suicide teams evidently organized as a first strike force from the hell of the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq.
The Paris attacks should not, however, be seen primarily as acts of revenge from a distinctly twisted crew, even though one of the murderers reportedly shouted, “You killed our brothers in Syria and now we are here.” Instead, they were clearly acts of calculated provocation meant to reshape our world in grim ways. Worse yet, their effectiveness was pre-guaranteed because, as has been true since 9/11, the leaders of such terror groups, starting with Osama bin Laden, have grasped the dynamics of our world, of what makes us tick and especially what provokes us into our own barbarous acts, so much better than our leaders, our militaries, or our national security states have understood them (or, for that matter, themselves).
Here in a nutshell is what bin Laden grasped before 9/11: with modest millions of dollars and a relatively small number of followers, he and his movement couldn’t hope to create the world of their fervid dreams. If, however, he could lure the planet’s “sole superpower” into stepping into his universe, military first, it would change everything and so do his work for him. And indeed (see: invasion of Afghanistan, invasion of Iraq), an operation mounted for an estimated $400,000 to $500,000, using 19 dedicated (mostly Saudi) followers armed only with paper cutters, did just that.
And it’s never stopped since because, just as bin Laden dreamed, Washington helped loose al-Qaeda and its successor outfits from the constraints of a more organized, controlled world. In these last 14 years of failed wars and conflicts of every sort, American military power, aided and abetted by the Saudis, the British, the French, and other countries on a case-by-case basis, essentially fractured the Greater Middle East. It helped create five failed states (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen), worlds in which terror groups could thrive and in the chaos of which they could attract ever more recruits.
Wiping Out the Gray Zones
Think of the Islamic State and various al-Qaeda crews as having developed (to steal a term from commentator John Feffer) “splinterlands” strategies. To continue to grow, they need the U.S. and its allies to lend them an eternally destructive hand to further smash the worlds around them. So in response to the Paris attacks, French President Francois Hollande’s statement that “we will lead a war which will be pitiless” was just what the terror doctor ordered, as was the growing pressure in Washington for a “big military response” to Paris. The first French reprisal air strikes against IS’s Syrian “capital,” Raqqa, were indeed launched within two days.
All of this is like manna from heaven for the Islamic State, the more “pitiless” the better. After all, that group’s goal, as they write in their magazine and online, is “the extinction of the gray zone” in our world. In other words, they seek the sharpening of distinctions everywhere, which means the opening of abysses where complexity and interaction once existed. Their dream is to live in a black-and-white world of utter religious and political clarity (and calamity), while engaging in what American pundits like to term a “clash of civilizations.” And — what a joy for the Islamic State! — Republican presidential candidates are already responding to the Paris attacks, as Marco Rubio did, by calling for just such “a civilizational conflict with radical Islam.” As he put it, “This is not a grievance-based conflict. This is a clash of civilizations… And either they win, or we win.” Jeb Bush similarly responded: “This is an organized effort to destroy Western civilization and we need to lead in this regard.” The answer, of course, is “war.” Various Republican candidates are also now calling for only accepting Syrian Christians as refugees here. You can’t be more black and white than that.
In the European context and with the destruction of those “gray zones” in mind, the Paris attacks should also be considered the Islamic State’s first foray into the politics of the 2017 French presidential campaign. Think of those mass killings as a wholehearted endorsement of the extremist candidate Marine le Pen, whose poll numbers were already on the rise even before the attacks, and her anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant National Front Party. She is now, in effect, IS’s chosen candidate, the one most likely to go after gray zones. In the process, of course, pressure on France’s large, increasingly isolated Muslim population will only increase.
Such attacks are guaranteed to put wind in the already billowing sails of far right-wing parties all across Europe. It should, for instance, have come as no surprise that, in the wake of the Paris attacks, Konrad Szymanski, the European affairs minister for Poland’s new far-right government, almost instantly declared his country unlikely to abide by recently negotiated European Union (EU) quotas on accepting refugees from the Greater Middle East. And we’re only going to see more of this in the post-Paris world. With the assistance of IS and other jihadist groups, the elimination of such gray areas in Europe could, in the end, help crack the EU open, while pushing France’s Muslims into an even worse situation, which would, of course, mean more potential recruits for groups like the Islamic State.
In other words, from IS’s point of view, the Paris attacks and other acts like them represent a potential horn of plenty. Sadly, it’s not the only organization that will reap such benefits — and I’m not just referring to other jihadist outfits either. Such acts are, after a fashion, similarly useful in the Western world. Think of it as a kind of unspoken bargain between two “civilizations” from hell.
Take the United States, a place where, in the years since 9/11, the danger of being attacked by an Islamic terrorist could be slotted in somewhere between being “shot” by your dog and being shot by a toddler who has found a loaded, unlocked gun in your house, purse, or car. Among the many perils of American life from car crashes to suicide, E. coli illnesses to floods, injuries from crumbling infrastructure to mass killings by non-Islamic lone wolves, Islamic terrorism remains at the bottom of the barrel in the company of other frightening but rare events like shark attacks. Yet the American national security state has essentially been built and funded to protect you from that danger alone.
Put another way, the officials of that security state have bet the farm on the preeminence of the terrorist “threat,” which has, not so surprisingly, left them eerily reliant on the Islamic State and other such organizations for the perpetuation of their way of life, their career opportunities, their growing powers, and their relative freedom to infringe on basic rights, as well as for that comfortably all-embracing blanket of secrecy that envelops their activities. Note that, as with so many developments in our world which have caught them by surprise, the officials who run our vast surveillance network and its staggering ranks of intelligence operatives and analysts seemingly hadn’t a clue about the IS plot against Paris (even though intelligence officials in at least one other country evidently did). Nonetheless, whether they see actual threats coming or not, they need Paris-style alarms and nightmares, just as they need local “plots,” even ones semi-engineered by FBI informers or created online by lone idiots, not lone wolves. Otherwise, why would the media keep prattling on about terrorism or presidential candidates keep humming the terror tune, and how, then, would public panic levels remain reasonably high on the subject when so many other dangers are more pressing in American life?
The relationship between that ever-more powerful shadow government in Washington and the Islamic terrorists of our planet is both mutually reinforcing and unnervingly incestuous. Both, of course, emerge as winners when the gray zones begin to disappear. When Paris is hit, after all, law enforcement agencies in the U.S. instantly increase their “alert levels”; the CIA director pushes back hard against “hand-wringing over intrusive government spying” and the minimalist restrictions on electronic surveillance put in place in recent years; the FBI heightens “its surveillance of Americans under investigation for apparent ties to the Islamic State”; and, among other things, more police patrols are sent out in major cities, while local law enforcement “vigilance” rises even in places like Niagara Falls, New York. In Los Angeles, post-Paris, extra patrols were typically sent “to ‘critical sites’ and [the city’s police department was] monitoring the ongoing situation, even though it said there were no known threats.”
The lack of obvious threats is, of course, beside the point when American “safety” is at stake! In the meantime, the road toward a more locked-down, secretive, governmentally intrusive, less democratic world is being well paved.
A Dance of Death
Think of this as a kind of global danse macabre in which ISIS attacks — eight committed guys, some possibly trained in combat in Syria or Iraq, with AK-47s, suicide vests, and rental cars — spread death, chaos, panic, and alarm in our world at next to no cost at all. In response, Washington and its allies engage in a big-budget version of the same, including intensified air campaigns which will, of course, end up taking out civilian targets and infrastructure.
Think of what the U.S. military does when it heads out to destroy those gray zones as the Kobane or Sinjar Strategy. Kobane was a largely Kurdish town on the Turkish border that IS militants besieged and partially took in 2014. They were driven back early this year by the same combination of forces that recently retook the town of Sinjar in northern Iraq: Kurdish fighters and American warplanes. By the time both were retaken, American bombs and Islamic State IEDs and booby-trapped houses had insured that those towns would be largely uninhabitable wrecks, littered with corpses and the skeletons of buildings.
Similarly, plans by the U.S. to intensify the bombing of those Syrian oilfields under the control of the Islamic state (to cut into its supply of funds) reflect a strategy that, whatever its immediate successes, is guaranteed to further wreck the infrastructure of the region. This will help ensure that, no matter what happens to the Islamic State, “Syria” or any state structure like it will be no more. Such acts of destruction, largely from the air, have been taking place across the Greater Middle East since 2001. From Libya to Syria, Iraq to Yemen, the Sinjar Strategy has demonstrably done little to bring success to the U.S. and its allies in their various wars. It has, however, helped create a zone of failed and increasingly fragile states. It has left uprooted populations leading skeletal lives in haunted lands that are also hunting grounds for extremists of every sort. Consider this the dream world of Osama bin Laden and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as well as the perfect breeding ground for yet more extreme nightmares of our age. A dance of death indeed.
As it happens, I’ve barely ranted and not yet wept. If anything, on reaching the end of this piece, I find myself depressed. The future shouldn’t be so easy to see or so repetitively predictable. And it’s a terrible thing to know that, as the gray zones of our planet continue to disappear and wrecked worlds spread, the tempo of that dance of mutual death and destruction stands every chance of speeding up as the “music” only grows louder.
Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs TomDispatch.com. His latest book is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.