Today we stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the people of France and the victims of the mindless slaughter that took place in Paris last Friday. Hopefully, we will still be doing so tomorrow (aujourd'hui, en francais), because we should be thinking in terms of a long haul before such attacks become items for the history books.
Whether the shocking events that unfolded there — a series of senseless and vicious attacks on innocent people by a barbaric group of zealots who long ago lost any right to associate their cause, whatever it is, with religion — becomes a turning point in an often confusing struggle against a foe who has brought unconventional tactics to the battlefield, remains to be seen. Much of the immediate reaction, understandably and correctly, turned towards striking back at whatever targets the thugs of ISIS (or ISIL, or to use the Arabic term, Daesh) presented. Such targets exist. The most obvious are the oil refineries in the portion of the former state of Syria now under ISIS control and a source of income and wealth for them.
There's no question that the coordinated series of attacks were attacks on the civilized world in general, and that others may follow. In recent weeks we've seen suicide bombers strike in Beirut, Lebanon, at the cost of more than 40 lives, blow up a Russian civilian airliner, causing 224 deaths, and now last weekend's atrocities in Paris, which resulted in another 129 deaths and hundreds more injured. The evil force behind these crimes against humanity must be resisted and stopped, and the people responsible for them taken out.
But — let's think about what we're opening the door to here. Attacks against the U.S. homeland may be inevitable anyway, but the odds will ratchet up the more we step up the pressure. That may be unavoidable, but we should factor that in before, cowboy-like, we go to the next level, and be aware of that. And it's a risk that must be taken. There is no alternative to that end; the question is how do we get there.
And just what is the next level? Is it more "boots on the ground"? Probably. If so, how many? It was only four years ago the last U.S. military personnel left Iraq, a country then far from stable eight years after the U.S.-led invasion which toppled another murderous thug, Saddam Hussein. If we're headed back into the Middle East in more ways than just air strikes, hopefully those charged with making that difficult and gut wrenching call will have thought through the long list of unintended consequences, unlike what the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfield neocon group failed to do back in 2002-3.
President Obama has been on the receiving end of much criticism for seeing military responses as something of a last resort, but that approach made sense up to now. No one in their right mind should want back in to the Middle East in the military sense. Number one, we never really did get disentangled from that painful part of the world. We're having a hard time getting out of Afghanistan, 14 years after a justified invasion toppled the Taliban from power. But they're still around. It's too easy for Islamic fundamentalists to see U.S. imperialistic designs behind every well-intentioned effort to help on our part. Military engagement, on a large or more minimal scale, has never brought the results hoped for. The president was wise, and within reason, to err on the side of caution. But now we're in a different situation.
Number two, foreign intervention aimed at restoring some sense of stability to the "arc of instability" stretching roughly from Libya to Afghanistan — a tremendous swath of territory — will have to involve several nations now armed with a stake in this fight, and be prepared to stick it out for the long term. It will include strange bedfellows. We may find ourselves allied with countries like Russia and Iran before it's over. Who knew?
One group of nations who should now feel the motivation to join such a coalition in a full-throated way are the Europeans who up until now have held off making the kinds of major commitments that could be game changers. The French and the British, along with smaller forces from other European countries, have pitched in, but if this new effort being called for is to succeed, much more will be required. Can they? Will they? Early indications seem positive. But it will also require the other still-functioning states of the Middle East, who with the exception of Jordan, have dithered on the sidelines.
Europe is only just beginning to emerge from a financial crisis centered on bailing out an insolvent Greek government, and is now grappling with an enormous influx of refugees from the war torn countries of the Middle East. One concern bedevilling their approach to accommodating those refugees has been the fear of terrorist infiltration. Sadly, some evidence at this stage suggests that may have been part of the tragedy in Paris last weekend. Sending the refugees home isn't going to work. Closing the doors won't either. Long term, the best answer may be to root out the terrorist cancer that has taken root in the Middle East, but that is a ways off, and we have a present day crisis. But here the present crisis, and the longer term solution, seem to overlap.
Closer to home, and for many Americans this may be the hardest and trickiest part to navigate, is the rollback of the privacy protections prompted by revelations that American spy masters at the CIA, FBI and other federal agencies were trampling over those freedoms to obtain real-time intelligence on would-be terror networks. There was always a fine line between protecting individual privacy from government snooping in the name of national security, and legitimate counter-terror measures necessary to save lives. Essentially, how you felt about that often hinged on how much you trusted the government not to misuse the information it gathered with the help of large technology and telecommunications companies. Those firms, with an eye towards protecting their businesses, have made it far more difficult for federal agents to crack encrypted communications that may pass between the bad guys, which could help those agents thwart plots before they get off the ground.
But that's a sad choice to have to make — a reasonable freedom from government surveillance or life vs. death for some innocent person — more likely dozens if not hundreds of persons — who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. That however, is precisely what we face, or will face. Calls for tech firms to hand over the encryption keys are inevitable, and may well be justified. Whether or not technology has leapfrogged to the next level, with apps that self-destruct after they are used, is another question to be confronted. The world is far more complicated than it was in 2001.
Today, our thoughts are with the innocent victims of the Parisian massacres. Memories of and comparisons to 9/11 are inevitable and natural. A brighter, more pleasant, more humane future, and the civilizing influences that go with it, are among the casualties as well. Hopefully, in the long run — and it may be a very long run — justice will be served on the barbarians of ISIS.