Terror attacks in the West are simultaneously trite and horrifying. The pattern is by now familiar: each starts with a country, a target, and a body count that leap to the top of the news before the attacker or even weapon is known. The routine is accompanied by the distress of a new city or community or moment of life that’s been violently indelibly ruptured.
The horror is in the details. Survivors playing dead in the blood of strangers as gunmen stalk victims. Flesh splattered in an airport terminal. A girl caught in the wheels of a truck. The horror extends to modernity turned against itself: vehicles transformed into weapons of mass destruction, celebrations that become graveyards, and liberation warped into fear.
For the assailant a rationale is often superfluous; sowing chaos comic-book style is reason enough. This doesn’t prevent Western powers from immediately apportioning blame or ISIS from eagerly claiming credit even when the motive is convoluted, as in Orlando, or completely nonexistent, as in Nice. That both the West and ISIS agree it is a conflict makes it a self-fulfilling prophesy of a clash of civilizations. The pace of attacks and scale of body count is necrotizing—the body politic consuming itself. (Unless a manifesto surfaces in which Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel declares he hated fireworks and beaches, his vehicular bloodbath will be defined, however unfairly, as Islamist terrorism.)
The attacks are also a contagion oblivious to borders like the Zika virus. Nice appears to be a product of toxic masculinity, a strain of terrorism distinctly American. What makes these attacks unique is not that they occur or who the perpetrators are, but where they occur. They disrupt first-world normality, as expressed in the phrase, “It’s happening to us.” That widespread carnage happens is taken for granted. It’s just supposed to happen anywhere but the West. Even the bombings in Madrid and London after 9/11 were one-off affairs, not a sustained campaign as is the case in Europe, particularly France and Turkey.
It does not diminish the grief to observe for each Bataclan, San Bernardino, Nice, and Ankara, a nation has been set ablaze by the West: Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Palestine, Afghanistan. Unlike random terror strikes, the West’s wars are utterly logical, driven by ideology, empire, and profit. As irrational as many of these attacks are, the blowback is logical, too. It was widely predicted prior to the U.S. conquest of Iraq, and it serves state and corporate interests through further militarization abroad and at home.
How to reduce the threat of random violence is vexing. The demagogic solution is to ban Muslims, ban cultures, ban immigrants, and this eliminationist mindset is spreading throughout the West.
Another response is we are “going to have to live with terrorism.” But this is just fatalism, a return to pre-industrial life in which death is ever-present, and it will be complemented by a hi-tech hardening of society: more walls, more police, more surveillance, more bureaucratic barriers, more suspicion, more hate more wars.
Rather than eliminate people, eliminating guns would stop the next Adam Lanza, but how to stop a Bouhlel armed with a truck? Absent banning guns, which would be extraordinarily difficult, U.S.-based terrorism defies easy solutions because the targets are so numerous and motives so complex. Elliot Rodger’s shooting spree was spurred by misogyny and racism. Dylann Roof hoped to ignite a race war, as apparently did Michael Page and other shooters. Robert Dear was incensed by fabricated right-wing talking points that Planned Parenthood sells aborted “baby parts.” While Nidal Hasan justified the Fort Hood massacre under the guise of defending the Taliban, the Army calls it workplace violence. Micah Johnson wanted to kill white cops, and Gavin Long wanted to kill any cops (though he was also apparently mentally ill.) The San Bernardino shooting, unique in being perpetrated by a married couple, appears to be a mix of workplace violence and religious extremism. Omar Mateen was consumed by self-loathing in attacking a gay nightclub he frequented, but he also demanded the United States stop bombing Syria and Iraq.
Social and economic frustrations are bubbling over in America and stoked by internet firebrands. It’s clear that the epidemic of angry men exacting revenge on society with both guns blazing is often intertwined with politics. The Boston marathon bombers, the subway bomber and underwear bomber, all pointed to U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as provoking their attacks.
The anger festers because there are few productive political outlets through which people can vent their frustrations and how movements agitating for social change have been stymied by the powers that be. Ending these attacks won’t happen overnight, but the left has the ability to reduce the allure of responding to Western wars through random terror.
The answer is reviving an antiwar movement. Since the anti-Iraq War movement collapsed after Obama was elected president, falsely claiming he would wind down America’s wars, most of the left has abandoned antiwar politics. Understandably, many want nothing to do with either the West or the likes of Syria’s Assad. But the left lacks clarity on ISIS in the way it does with issues like single-payer healthcare or free college tuition. With no popular antiwar movement, Bernie Sanders took the absurd position that the Saudis and Gulf states should wage and fund the war against ISIS. Never mind the oil-rich monarchies are responsible for much of the turmoil and religious extremism in the region. Ironically, Trump adopted a leftist position in saying the Iraq War destabilized the entire Middle East and wasted trillions of dollars that would have been better spent at home.
The fact that Trump’s railings against U.S. wars found a receptive audience among independents and even on the right shows there is a large base of support for an antiwar movement.
The left should stick to its principles, namely by building on solidarity, whether with the revolution in Rojava among Kurds fighting ISIS, oil workers in Iraq battling for higher wages and against a corrupt state, or the Palestinian struggle for self-determination.
Solidarity should also extend to humanizing the victims of the West. After every incident like Nice there is an outpouring of articles about how victims died, the lives they lived, who was left behind, the stories and trauma on survivors, and the long-term social effects.
Virtually none of that humanization exists for those who died from Western bombs. The Iraq War killed anywhere from hundreds of thousands of Iraqis to more than a million people. That uncertainty alone speaks volumes about how little is known about those who died at American hands or how they were killed.
To take one example, when the United States assaulted the city of Fallujah in November 2004, it turned the entire city into a killing field. One of the few stories to leak out can now only be found in obscures patches of the internet. It is the account of AP photographer who realized it was foolhardy to remain in Fallujah to capture pictures of the devastations caused by the Americans.
Bilal Hussein said at the time, “Destruction was everywhere. I saw people lying dead in the streets, wounded were bleeding and there was no one to come and help them.” He decided to swim across the Euphrates River, but changed his mind as he watched “horrified” as U.S. helicopters were “firing on and killing people who tried to cross the river,” including a family of five. Hussein walked for hours along the riverbank looking for a chance to cross, but he spied “U.S. snipers ready to shoot anyone who might swim.”
Multiply this one account by tens of thousands and one starts to get a sense of the magnitude of crimes the United States and other Western powers have perpetrated upon nearly a dozen countries in the name of fighting terrorism.
These stories are widely known throughout Arab and Muslim-majority countries, as stories of Western victims are known here. Just as attacks in the West often solidify support for more bombing and repression at home, those wars in turn set in motion a new cycle of attempted terrorist strikes.
But no society can live with terrorism; it ceases to be a society. For now, the virus will be difficult to eliminate. But collective political action like a new antiwar movement is the only real hope for ending both state terror and individual terror.