Don't Give ISIS What It Wants

In the aftermath of the horrific terror attacks in Paris, it's important that the West not play right into the terrorist state's hands.
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In the aftermath of the horrific terror attacks in Paris, it's important that the West not play right into the terrorist state's hands.
People gather outside Notre Dame Cathedral ahead of a ceremony for the victims of Friday's terrorist attacks in Paris, France. (Photo: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

People gather outside Notre Dame Cathedral ahead of a ceremony for the victims of Friday's terrorist attacks in Paris, France. (Photo: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

On Friday, teams of coordinated gunmen and suicide bombers struck six different sites across Paris, leaving more than 130 dead and 352 injured, the Guardian reports. The attack—perpetrated by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria against Europe's capital of "crusaders" and "prostitution and vice," according to a vicious statement from the caliphate—is the worst to hit France since World War II, and the most severe in Europe since the 2004 Madrid bombings that killed 191. Apart from the 2008 Mumbai attacks, this was one of the deadliest instances of terrorism since 9/11. Coming just 10 months after the brutal murder of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists in Paris by a group of jihadi gunmen, the attacks left France and the West in a state of shock.

And what came next is exactly what ISIS wants.

Within hours of the attacks, French president François Hollande declared a state of emergency, closing the country's borders and ordering the first nationwide curfew since 1944. The closing of borders seems standard, but it also gave France (and the West's) far-right faction a political opening; news that the passport of a Syrian refugee had reportedly been found on the body of a suicide bomber (they were fakes made in Turkey) had stoked embers of xenophobia, already on the rise amid the influx of refugees from war-torn Syria (despite the irony that, of course, these refugees are the ones fleeing ISIS in the first place). On Saturday, Hollande declared the attack an "act of war"; a day later, French jets started bombing Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State caliphate.

The Islamophobic backlash running through the West is all but a recruitment windfall for jihadists everywhere.

For French officials reeling from an unprecedented terrorist attack, the leap to lash out in anger is totally understandable. It's the reactions of politicians across the pond that paints an ugly reminder as to where these emotions can lead. In both the United States and coalition allies, pressure is reportedly building for a stronger military response to ISIS, despite continued anxiety over committing ground troops to a campaign currently dependent on air strikes.

The New York Times editorial board wrote on Sunday that the Paris attacks "will harden the resolve of the French against the savagery of the Islamic State, as it must the world's." Times op-ed columnist Roger Cohen joined a chorus of conservative pundits declaring that the "only adequate measure" is an all-out assault with everything in our arsenal. Foreign policy analysts are already suggesting that France invoke NATO's Article 5 mandating collective self-defense, which would mark just the second time in history such action was taken (the first being the 9/11 attacks).

Listen closely to this rhetoric, from "Islam is a religion of violence" to "the barbarians at our gates." Everything you've heard or seen on your television or on Twitter in the last four days is part of that uncontrollable response to an unthinkable act of cruelty, the manifestation of those inevitable twin emotions of rage and fear that, as Gawker's Hamilton Nolan wrote after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, are exactly why terrorism works.

Despite the obvious failures of America's first War on Terror, you can feel the fight-or-flight logic of post-attack anxiety pushing us toward yet another messy conflict that's likely to do more harm than good. This, in a country already habituated to the specter of Islamic terror, is the template of our mourning, our sorrow, and our anger. It's not hard to hear echoes of President George W. Bush's post-9/11 "you're either with us or against us" mantra.

Members of the public observe a silence at Place de la Republique in Paris, France. (Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Members of the public observe a silence at Place de la Republique in Paris, France. (Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

But this is exactly what ISIS wants: for the West to panic, as it did after 9/11, and throw itself into a long, costly war against the Muslim world. Other Islamic groups have, to some extent, accepted the realities of modern geopolitics. (Think: the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas' political dealings, or the Taliban's negotiations with the government of Afghanistan.) But recognizing borders and boundaries is "ideological suicide" to the Islamic State, an "act of apostasy," as Graeme Wood wrote in March; to sustain its ideology and, in turn, its allure to disaffected young Muslims around the world, the Islamic State needs to exist in a constant state of war against the crusaders of the West. This explains why ISIS doesn't really care about the indiscriminate deaths of Muslims, which comes as an ideological departure from terror groups like al-Qaeda. For ISIS, a terror attack that yields an international campaign of Western drone strikes, which in turn primarily kill civilians, is actually an end goal. As Wood puts it, "the biggest proponent of an American invasion is the Islamic State itself":

The provocative videos, in which a black-hooded executioner addresses President Obama by name, are clearly made to draw America into the fight. An invasion would be a huge propaganda victory for jihadists worldwide: irrespective of whether they have given baya'a to the caliph, they all believe that the United States wants to embark on a modern-day Crusade and kill Muslims. Yet another invasion and occupation would confirm that suspicion, and bolster recruitment. Add the incompetence of our previous efforts as occupiers, and we have reason for reluctance. The rise of ISIS, after all, happened only because our previous occupation created space for Zarqawi and his followers. Who knows the consequences of another botched job?

The Islamophobic backlash running through the West is all but a recruitment windfall for jihadists everywhere. It's part of the logic of the Islamic State designed to build a new generation of loyal militants, a push that lends credence to the idea that, while American arch-conservatives flip out about refugees (like Ted Cruz, who called for a moratorium on U.S. refugee programs, or ex-Bush speechwriter David Frum, who tweeted "maybe guard the border before the massacre"), it's actually the Muslim world that's under attack from the West—a narrative that has very real ideological roots. "By strengthening and emboldening the xenophobic right-wing in Europe, they strengthen their own worldview as well," wrote Syrian blogger Nader Atassi in the aftermath of the attacks. "And the most tragic irony is that the backlash may target refugees who themselves had been fleeing ISIS' reign of terror."

We know how this works. Just as there's a template to our grief in the aftermath of mass shootings in the U.S., there's one for terrorism: the dual rise of xenophobia and Westphalian nationalism, embodied in an inevitable spike in hate crimes, the hashtags and Facebook profile filters meant to show distant solidarity, and the rattling of sabres for some sort of response. But ISIS knows this playbook better than we seem to, and the caliphate is designed to thrive on this pathological instinct to destroy, to avenge, to annihilate, running through the powerful officials and institutions of Western military might. ISIS is a masterclass in trolling, the epitome of modern terrorism, and for every tweet from Ann Coulter or op-ed in the Weekly Standard calling for the complete obliteration of Raqqa, another militant gets his suicide vest. "Solidarity with the end of a safe, secure France is righteous," wrote the Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf. "Deference to any means the country might choose to secure that end is an abdication of wisdom masquerading as righteous compassion." One can only hope that the scars of 9/11 and the War on Terror will serve as reminders of this wisdom gleaned through failure.

Unfortunately, terrorism works, and for the first hours after an attack we're often stuck in a limbo of horror, disgust, and rage. Once the pundits and politicians begin to pound their fists, I can't help but think of Terry Gilliam's 1985 dystopian science fiction masterpiece Brazil. Inspired by the specter of IRA bombings during his time living in London, Gilliam produced a surreal depiction of a bombing at a crowded social hall; members of the city's aristocracy, coated in dust and rubble, simply re-adjust their hats and coats and go about their business.

"I loved the idea that, no matter what goes on, no matter how bad the bombings, no matter how much human carnage there is, people get on with their lives," Gilliam said of the scene. "People would get on with their lives ... a bombing would occur, and the next day the restaurants would open and live would go on. People would accuse me of being insensitive, but in that kind of world, the only way you can survive is to cut out great chunks of the awfulness."

Gilliam's prescription isn't really a solid one (mainly because it's meant as a critique of a highly-materialistic Big Brother-esque bureaucracy and of "false flag" catastrophes that justify its existence), but we saw strains of this on Saturday, when BuzzFeed reporter Ryan Broderick asked Parisian pedestrians what messages they wanted to send the world; "living on is resistance," one wrote. It's this same spirit that animated Parisians to stand in line for hours to give blood and for some writers to call for European officials to open their arms (and borders) to refugees. The attacks on Paris prove that Islamic extremism can't be eliminated with bombs and bullets. Yes, you can attack its training centers, as France did on Sunday, or choke off its financial resources by sanctioning sponsor states in the Middle East. But the only true way to ensure the demise of Islamic terror is to eliminate the xenophobia, the disenfranchisement, and the discrimination that feeds ISIS's narrative of a religion under attack by Western imperialist overlords. To give in to rage and fear is exactly what ISIS wants—and that's why it's our responsibility to swallow our more vengeful emotions, no matter how hard that may be.