John Buell

The Politics of Terror: Paris

Paris today is at the center of multiple crises. A terror war, amidst crises over climate, refugees, and attacks on civil liberties. The response to the terrorist attacks amidst the influx oft refugees may well be a precursor of things to come. Though the millions of refugees today are fleeing war, it is all too likely that future refugees will be fleeing another man made atrocity, climate change making vast segments of the planet unable to sustain large populations or even literally uninhabitable. Hampshire College professor Michael Klare remarks “On a climate-changed planet … don’t rule out struggles among nations for diminished vital resources — especially access to water.” How terrorist incidents now are handled may form a template that will shape perceptions and treatment not only of future refugees from civil wars and resource conflicts but also of domestic dissent. By the same token, sealed borders and political repression will make generous responses to climate catastrophes less likely.

The mainstream media are awash with stories about the bombers, for whom they were acting and what if anything was known about these individuals before hand. Unfortunately there has been much less media focus on the larger historical antagonisms, ideologies, and interests that coalesced in ISIS and the assassins eager to die for it.

The corporate media paint a picture of absolute evil besieging a humane, just, and free world. This Manichean world has been a familiar trope from the beginning of our history and was especially prominent in the Cold War era. Citizens who listen only to the corporate media might be surprised to learn that evil ISIS did not emerge ex nihilo. Pierre Tristam, editor of FlaglerLive, reminds us: “there was no al-Qaeda before the CIA armed the mujahideens in Afghanistan to fight the Soviets in the 1980s.” The price the Soviets paid for that intervention is sometimes cited as a major factor in its downfall.

Many believed that the fall of the Soviet Union would issue in a new world order, one in which the US would be dominant. Government would enjoy a peace dividend allowing it to spend on a series of domestic priorities Instead, the post Cold War World has been defined by and has orchestrated a perpetual war on a succession of enemies it designated as “terrorists.” ISIS, with its visual atrocities, has been the latest villain in that perpetual war. Nonetheless, as Tristan also reminds us: “There was no ISIS before George W. Bush invaded Iraq and atomized a dictator into a thousand mirror images all over the Levant.”

If ISIS sprung from near but unacknowledged sources, it also has enjoyed continued assistance of some surprising allies, a story the corporate media also conveniently forget. As Robert Parry asks, “Will Obama explain how US “allies” in the Middle East, such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, have been fueling this Sunni extremism for years? … On a practical level, will Obama finally release those 28 pages from the congressional 9/11 report that addressed evidence of Saudi support for the hijackers who attacked New York and Washington in 2001”

If ISIS and its murderers have closer ties to the US than are acknowledged, its barbarity is also hardly unique. University of California Riverside Professor Laila Lalami points out:‘The beheadings, the crucifixions, the destruction of cultural heritage that ISIS practices—none of these are new. They all happened, and continue to happen, in Saudi Arabia too. The government of Saudi Arabia has beheaded more people this year than ISIS.’ Tom Engelhardt reports that the US itself has bombed at least eight wedding parties since 2001. After a hardly covered atrocity in 2013, he commented: “this is at least the eighth wedding party reported wiped out, totally or in part, since the Afghan War began, and it extends the extermination of wedding celebrants from the air to a third country—six destroyed in Afghanistan, one in Iraq, and now the first in Yemen. And in all those years, reporters covering these “incidents” never seem to notice that similar events had occurred previously.”

When it even acknowledges such atrocities the US government deems these mistakes, not intentional. Yet is there a moral difference when belligerents employ high tech weaponry that they know cannot be perfectly accurate and in the process kill innocent civilians? Surely if these were our wedding parties, we would accept no such moral reasoning. There is little doubt that such atrocities serve as effective recruiting tools for ISIS.

One devastating aspect of the Paris tragedy and the ways in which it is covered has been to further entrench violations of civil liberties both in France and perhaps in other western democracies. French President Hollande has already been granted sweeping powers of surveillance and warrantless searches. Portrayal of fanatical barbsrity increases fear. Fear in turn provokes intensification of a surveillance state and an emphasis on militaristic responses to the crisis, in turn intensifying xenophobic politics. Here in the US, as Glenn Greenwald has pointed out, corporate media have a long- standing symbiotic relationship with the national security establishment and serve only to intensify fear and a repressive agenda. In the midst of such events all the corporate media become little distinct from Fox News.

Activists on civil liberties, environmental, and refugee issues need to fight these ugly dynamics. Tristam argues we must end “the murderous cycle … by closing Guatanamo, which has served as an excellent recruiting symbol for a generation of jihadists, by leaving Afghanistan, and by leaving Iraq for good. Syria and Iraq are Iran’s and the Arab world’s problems… Staying there is a guarantee of little more than western casualties–there and in the west. It might feel good to chest-thump for bombings and troops and another invasion here and there. It’ll accomplish nothing that the Iraq and Afghan wars haven’t failed to accomplish.”

Finding political and rhetorical space for such a sensible agenda is the serious challenge. So much of individual and collective identity in this world of flux and insecurity is sustained by some combination of Manichean world views, our sense of our special place in history, and solid borders. That the war on terror may be perpetual is beside the point for some segments of the population. Nonetheless changing demographics will open some possibilities. Appeals to constitutional norms can and must be made, but I see more hope in organization across borers, ethnicities, progressive religious persuasions that might hold all leaders accountable for their atrocities. Such loose alliances might forge more equitable and sustainable access to resources as well as humane border policies. And a new visual politics is vital. Perhaps the next time US forces bomb a wedding party social media might witness thousands of all nationalities laying down flowers in memory of a couple and celebrating the possibilities their lives might have had in their homeland.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and writes on labor and environmental issues. His books include Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age (Palgrave MacMillan, 2011). Email

From The Progressive Populist, December 15, 2015

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