Disclaimer: This post contains spoilers for the TV show “The Wire”. And also some colourful language, such as you might expect when talking about terrorist bastards.
This week has been a bad one for the world. Unless, of course, you happen to be a giant terrorist asshole. Terror attacks in Beirut, Baghdad, and the deadliest attack in Paris since World War 2 have sent the world reeling. The group known by many acronyms — ISIS, ISIL, or what I’ll refer to in this post as Daesh, has claimed ‘responsibility’ (if such a word could even be used) for all three attacks.
All this has happened against a backdrop of unprecedented humanitarian crisis, as hundreds of thousands of refugees continue to flee Syria’s deadly civil war. Western governments are debating how they can cope with what they’ve dubbed a “migrant crisis”, as though the problem only started when desperate refugees started showing up in Europe. It happened on the eve of the G20 summit in Antayla, Turkey, and in the lead-up to a huge global summit on climate change taking place in Paris.
The responses to the attack, in typical format, have followed the Rorschach Test pattern; people see in tragedy what they want to see. More foreign aid. Less foreign aid. More military intervention. Less military intervention. More solidarity with refugees. Close our borders to refugees. It’s about Islam. It’s not about Islam. And so on, and so forth. French president Francois Hollande has taken a hard line, promising military strikes against Daesh, closing of borders, and crackdowns all around.
Everyone has an opinion on how to fight this so-called “war on terror”. But is this really a “war”?
It strikes me that this so-called “war on terror” bears a lot of resemblance to another misnomer: the so-called “war on drugs”.
Sure, this isn’t exactly an original observation. Plenty of people have pointed this out in analysis after analysis. But, other than depressingly similar tactics, sources of funding and consequences, these two so-called wars parallel each other in other ways. Here are just a few:
1. Both “wars” are about money, power and territory.
“A’ight, see this? This the king, and he the man. You get the other dude’s king, you got the game. But he trying to get your king too. So your gotta protect it.” — D’Angelo Barksdale
We’ve heard a lot about how the “war on terror” is a war on ideology. They hate our way of life, goes the narrative. They hate us for our freedoms. They want us dead. They want to impose a radical Islamist government based on sharia law, and they want everyone to adhere to it to the letter. This is about religion or ideology, goes the argument, and we need to understand it better. Or we need to condemn it. Or we need moderate Muslims to condemn it. Or some version of all three.
But these terror attacks have as little to do with the ideology of religion as drug cartels have to do with the ideology about drugs. They’re about three things: money, power and territory. The religion — like the drugs — are merely the tools. The means to an end.
I think most people would agree that drug dealers don’t care about drugs, per se. As much as there’s an “ideology” of drugs, even, which there isn’t, really. Sure, some people might grow dreadlocks and smoke weed and go to Grateful Dead concerts and subscribe to a Bob Marley-like world view, but those usually the consumers, not the distributors. For most drug lords, the drugs are beside the point, other than the fact that they represent an excellent way to make money. Drugs are illegal and in high demand, so there’s a supply vacuum. Organized criminals are opportunists: Drugs represent an excellent opportunity, so they’re all over that. They were all over the alcohol business during prohibition. They’re involved in gambling, prostitution, pretty much any area where they can make money and secure power. And when they kill rival drug dealers, or muscle their way into territory, they’re doing it not for any ideological reasons, but merely to secure more money and power.
The so-called “war on terror” is the same thing. Organized terrorist groups in the middle east use religion to recruit, train and keep people in line. They use it to justify their actions. The folks at the bottom and the middle may believe it. The folks at the very top probably couldn’t care less. Religion is a powerful tool to achieve their ends, but those ends are the same: Money, power and territory.
Observers of the middle east have noted that there are two major spheres of influence competing for money, power and territory right now. Sunni vs. Shiite isn’t about ideology. Not really. I mean, yes, there are theological differences between the two main branches of Islam, but that isn’t why they’re fighting. They’re fighting for control of a sphere of influence. The two major — Sunni Wahhabist, mostly backed and funded by Saudi Arabia, and Shiite — mostly backed and funded by Iran — want to dominate the region and prevent the other from gaining ground. Daesh wants to establish an Islamic caliphate across the entire middle east. Iran, via its proxies such as Hezbollah, has similar aspirations to take over the likes of Syria and Iraq on the Shiite side of the fight. But here, Shiite and Sunni are merely used as designators for which tribe you belong to. You might as well call them shirts and skins, or red hats and blue hats.
Religion is a tool that they use to recruit and cling to power. But it’s not the only one. Even for recruits, religion is often beside the point. They’re motivated by a promise of a return to power — a common refrain from people who have been disenfranchised or who feel humiliated and powerless in their lives. They’re motivated by fear: Join us or we’ll kill you is a powerful threat when you live in a war zone. Join us or we’ll kill your family and everyone you love is an even more powerful threat. And they’re motivated by the promise of power, dignity and spoils.
This is nothing new. Human beings have been aligning themselves with whomever they see as the most powerful leader since the dawn of humanity. If one group appears to be gaining ground, people will jump on their bandwagon. If another appears to be losing ground, people will scramble to jump ship. We see it all the time in our democratic, peaceful elections. It’s only natural that the same thing would happen when the stakes are higher, and when power is achieved not at the ballot box but at gunpoint.
That’s why Daesh’s tactics are so calculated. Attacks like the one in Paris are designed to send a message at home: We’re the strongest, so align yourself with our camp and not our enemy’s. It’s basically a horrific pissing contest, where whoever wins gets the spoils. They’re designed to send a message abroad, to disaffected, disenfranchised young people bristling at the indignity of being treated like second-class citizens in their home countries: Join us and we’ll give you honour and power. And they’re designed to secure a power base.
In the war on drugs, dealers will go out into the streets and carry out brutal revenge attacks to send a message to their rivals that they mean business. Gang symbols and signatures, swift retaliations, brutal execution methods — they’re the equivalent of a horse’s head left in bed. Terrorist organizations operate in much the same way: They don’t behead people because it says so in a holy text. They behead people to strike fear and send a message.
If they could achieve money, power and territory without these methods, they probably would. Drug dealers don’t like having to kill people or launch wars; these things are bad for business. But they do it, because they’re fighting law enforcement on one side and their rivals on another. To show weakness is to lose.
Similarly, terrorist groups don’t often define themselves as such. They want territory, perhaps. as in the case of the IRA in Ireland, or the ETA in the Basque region, or — arguably — the PLO and then Hamas et al in the Palestinian territories. They definitely want power. They’ve determined terrorism to be a remarkably effective tool to achieve their means. But if they could secure and hold onto their power base without carrying out these attacks or oppressing people, they probably would. The problem is that in their world, there’s always someone else willing to take it one step further to wrench power away from them. Arguably, this is why the likes of Bashar al-Assad and Saddam Hussein ruled with such heavy-handed iron fists. In their world, to show weakness is to concede altogether. And to carry out a horrific show of strength — such as when Assad launched chemical weapons at his own people — is to send a message to rival groups: Don’t fuck with me.
You can’t fight a war against these folks. You can conquer one group or leader or kingpin, sure. But you can’t conquer the desire for money, power and territory. Someone will always want those three things. And someone will always be willing to resort to something worse than the last guy did in order to get them. This summarizes all of human history.
2. Fighting these “wars” leads to unintended consequences.
“The Game’s the same, just got more fierce.” – Slim Charles
In the fictional universe of The Wire, arresting Avon Barksdale or killing off Stringer Bell doesn’t end the drug trade in Baltimore; it merely makes way for the likes of Marlo Stanfield, whose brutal methods make the Barksdale heyday look downright civilized in comparison. At one point, Det. Jimmy McNulty wryly says “what the fuck did I do?” but he has no idea how prophetic his words will become, as, in later seasons, the police find themselves nostalgic for the Barksdale days when dealing with Marlo, Chris and Snoop.
The real life war on drugs is a bit like that, too; governments and law enforcement agencies take down or arrest one drug gang, cartel or criminal organization, and all it does is help their rivals. The CIA gets involved, deposing of political leaders tied to one cartel, and this merely puts their rivals into power. And soon enough, the groups you fund and back today turn into tomorrow’s enemies.
Because there will always be demand for drugs, if you vanquish one drug lord, it simply creates a vacuum. And nature abhors vacuums. So these vacuums get filled pretty quickly, by whichever rival drug lord is willing to resort to the most violent, brutal tactics to claim power.
Well, it’s the same with the “war on terror”. Western governments get involved to fight one group. That group gets vanquished, maybe, creating a power vacuum. And these vacuums tend to get filled pretty quickly — and not by democratic moderates, either. No, a power vacuum gets filled by whoever demonstrates the most power. Whoever inspires the most fear. Whoever is willing to resort to the most horrific methods.
Let’s not kid ourselves: A victory against Daesh won’t end terrorism. It will merely lead to someone worse.
What could be worse than Daesh? Yes, I agree, they’re pretty horrific. The irony is that they make other terrorist organizations, like Al Quaeda, look mild in comparison. Who would’ve predicted, after 9/11, that one day we’d be sitting around waxing nostalgic for the days of Osama Bin Laden?
Following Friday’s attacks, Francois Hollande announced France’s intent to take the fight to the enemy on home ground, in the form of stepping up air strikes and military action against Daesh. He called upon world allies, many of whom are already engaged in this fight, to step it up as well.
But fighting Daesh in Syria is not a simple matter. How do you do it? Do you fund and support its rivals? Well, let’s look at who those rivals are: the likes of Bashar al-Assad, who used chemical weapons against his own civilians to quell Arab Spring protests. Hezbollah, supported by Iran in an attempt to check Sunni Wahhabi fundamentalism with Shiite fundamentalism. Or Al-Quaeda, which has separated itself from Daesh because the latter’s methods are too extreme for the former’s tastes. Which one of these would you suggest that Western powers back, exactly?
How did we get here? By simplistically assuming that if we deposed one bad guy, a good guy would take his place. By assuming the world is like an old Western movie, with black hats and white hats, where the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
We could argue that this all dates back to colonialism. There’s some truth to that. But that puts too much responsibility on European colonial powers. There were empires before European colonialism. There will be empires after it. Most of human history has been one of empires, because we humans seem to only know how to organize ourselves into tribes and follow leaders who are powerful enough to fight the other guy’s leaders.
Arguably, empire is our natural state as human beings, and the modern democratic nation-state is a historical blip, an anomaly that has resulted from a golden age of prosperity. That’s a depressing view of history, to be sure. But remember, the modern democratic nation-state is only just over a century old. That’s nothing in the grand scheme of history. There’s nowhere near enough time gone by to determine whether this model is sustainable or not.
Anyway, the US got rid of Saddam Hussein, a brutal dictator who oppressed his own people (who the US had helped prop up in the Iran/Iraq war a decade earlier). But democracy and sunshine and rainbows didn’t magically spring up to take his place. Instead, we got Al Quaeda, Hezbollah, Daesh. Because sometimes, the enemy of my enemy is still my enemy.
Meanwhile, Russia got involved in the conflict, fighting Daesh by funnelling money, weapons and support to the Syrian army via Iran. Pause and think about that weird alignment of enemies for a moment. Because Russia, unlike the US, understands tribalism and divide-and-conquer cynical politics. And is willing to play all sides against the middle to achieve its own aims — of — you guessed it — money, power and territory.
The whole thing is arguably one big proxy war. The US and Russia may never have fired a shot during the Cold War, but that didn’t stop them from fighting proxy wars on other people’s land, putting other people’s civilians in the crossfire instead of their own. To some degree, that’s what is happening here, as Putin makes a move and Obama makes a counter-move.
Each time we get involved in the middle east (or anywhere, really) to topple a dictator or power base we don’t like, we end up putting a worse one in power. Wasn’t it Einstein who pointed out that doing the same thing over and over again expecting different consequences is the definition of insanity?
3. Both “wars” are used as excuses to erode civil liberties at home.
“You call something a war, and pretty soon, everybody going to be acting like warriors … and when you’re at war, you need an enemy. And pretty soon, damn near everybody on every corner is your enemy. And the neighborhood you’re supposed to be policing, that’s just occupied territory.” – Major “Bunny” Colvin
The “war on drugs” has, by some accounts, turned into a war on all citizens. In the US especially, this is what has happened: Entire neighbourhoods in cities where the police face off against the people living there in an ongoing daily battleground. The US incarcerates more people than any other country in the world. Police using automatic weapons against teenagers. Entire communities are under siege. There are more African-American young men in prison than there are in college. And so on. And so forth.
Similarly, the “war on terror” has inspired us to give up a gamut of civil liberties. Ignoring Benjamin Franklin’s famous quote, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety” has been summarily dismissed. The Patriot Act. Bill C51. Governments spying on their citizens. Closing borders, denying refugee claims, throwing people in prison without due process. All of these have been consequences of the so-called “war on terror”.
In both cases, we’re reacting in the worst possible way. The “war on terror” has arguably played right into the hands of the terrorists, who could calculate these moves like a chess game. If their fertile recruiting grounds are among disaffected, marginalized and disenfranchised population segments who feel humiliated and beaten down, then what could be worse than creating more people exactly like that? This is what France has done, with its large Muslim population barred from dressing or worshipping as they please, dealing with high unemployment, low economic opportunity, high degrees of racism, and living in neighbourhoods where there’s no upward mobility in sight. This is, to some extent, what happens all over Europe, or in all western countries who use the “war on terror” as an excuse to treat anyone with brown skin or a middle eastern sounding name as a second class citizen.
That’s not to say that any of this is an excuse. There are no excuses for terrorism. And I would never, ever suggest that France (or anyone) had it coming. The so-called “root causes” of terror lie in the money, power and territory fight I referenced above. All the rest of it is just a tool. And there is no universe under which I would blame the victim here.
But let’s face it: Terrorism isn’t about killing a few dozen or a few hundred innocent people. It’s about inspiring fear in the millions. And when we allow the fear to spread like wildfire, we’re playing right into their hands. When we stay home from movie theatres and off subways, when we submit to strip searches at airports, when we impose curfews and cancel plans and allow fear to rule our lives, and — most of all — when we scapegoat the “other” by banning religious headwear or denying medical care to refugees or a thousand and ten other ways that we turn our fellow citizens into the enemy — then we help nobody at all.
Because then it becomes not a war against the terrorists. It becomes a war against ourselves.
4. Neither “war” has an endgame.
Carver: You can’t even think of calling this shit a war.
Herc: Why not?
Carver: Wars end.
Traditional wars, such as they were, had endgames. Sure, you could argue, fairly convincingly, that there are no winners in war and there never have been. But, at least when two nations fought, there were generally agreed-upon conventions to ending a war: One side would surrender, everyone would sign some sort of armistice, and both sides would pick up their weapons and go home.
Neither the war on drugs nor the war on terror are real wars, though. As such, they don’t have endgame scenarios.
With the war on drugs, topple one cartel or kingpin, and three more will rise up and take their place. You can’t stop the supply altogether, because as long as there’s demand and profit, someone will find a way to ensure the supply.
You can’t stop the demand, either; no amount of “just say no” or “this is your brain on drugs” campaigns will stop people from trying them. You can’t lock up every drug user (though heaven knows, the United States certainly seems to be trying). And while there are programs that can help individual drug addicts recover, there aren’t any solutions as of yet that quell the problem on a societal level.
Actually, there is one possible endgame with the war on drugs: Legalization. The world could legalize all drugs — not just marijuana, but all of them — and regulate and tax them. There will probably be some sort of black market that remains, as there is now for legal drugs, but it will be far less. And some people will still get addicted — as they do with other legal drugs such as alcohol — but they will be a minority and can be helped more easily if they’re not afraid of legal repercussions. We’re a long way off from mass legalization of all drugs, and I admit it would cause a whole host of other problems. But at least it exists as an option. However, let’s face it: The drugs are beside the point for the drug cartels. If drugs were legalized, they’d merely move onto some other sort of illegal enterprise for profit. And they’d continue to compete for those same three things: Money, power and territory.
Well, terrorism similarly has no endgame. And there isn’t even the stopgap option of legalization. You can’t surrender to the demands of the terrorists, because their ideologies are beside the point. At most, you can recognize their territorial, financial and power claims by recognizing them as nations — as the UN wants to do with Palestine, for instance — and you can hope to impose some sort of stability that way. It’s difficult enough to do that with groups who resort to terror to establish independence or statehood. It’s much harder to do that with groups who don’t have nationhood as their stated goal. But either way, you can’t end a war on terror by surrendering to it. That’s just a surefire way to cause more terror.
And there’s certainly no victory endgame scenario. If you beat one terrorist group militarily, you merely set up conditions for another to move in and take over. Western governments have enough firepower to bomb Daesh to kingdom come, but then what? Nature abhors a vacuum, remember? Someone will take over, and that someone will likely be a group that’s even more extreme than the last one.
So how do you fight terrorism? Well, that’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? If I had the definitive answer to that question, I’d probably be working in a very different job right now. But I have an inkling that you don’t fight it by declaring “war” against a tactic. Because that war just drags on endlessly, causes all sorts of unintended consequences, and hurts the very people we’re trying to help the most.