It has been a month of vigils and prayers. Among the countless countries struck by disaster, France, Russia and Mali have suffered terrorist attacks, drawing sympathy from across the globe. In an ever more connected world, social media means that it has never been easier to show solidarity with those affected. The sea of French flags on Facebook showed how the darkest of crises can inspire the best in collective human endeavour as Parisians and non-Parisians alike grieved as one. And yet, such powerful displays of peace are too often accompanied by the jarring rhetoric of enmity and revenge.
Francois Hollande has declared his country at war with Islamic State, and David Cameron has pledged his support and hastily announced a spate of new security measures. With
European leaders shaken by the proximity of the Paris attacks and Putin realising the opportunities that an anti-IS coalition could create for his campaign to lift Russia’s current EU sanctions, there has been a great rush towards a military response with little consideration of its long-term viability.
The grieving in the nations affected will call for the blood of the perpetrators, and this is an understandable reaction. However, it is not an entirely rational one, and it certainly should not form the foundation of international martial action. While simply holding hands in a vigil or sharing a plea for peace may seem like a feeble response to such brutality, it is all we can and must do until a sound policy of military, economic and social measures can be drawn up. Plunging into already volatile areas with a goal to avenge and conquer alone is neither responsible nor required. “Cracking down” on potential terrorists with security measures must be carefully regulated so that our society’s tolerance and diversity, arguably our greatest assets in the face of those who would threaten us, are celebrated and strengthened rather than undermined.
“Terrorism” does not have its name because it is a challenge to its victims’ governments, or a move in a global chess game to see who chickens out first. Rather, acts of terrorism aim to compensate for the perpetrator’s military incapacity by forcing the enemy to defeat themselves with their own fear. In lieu of destroying their opponents entirely, terrorists would scare the world into locked houses with closed blinds. The best response to it, then, is to continue with life as we know it; mile-long queues in Paris this January for the next Charlie Hebdo magazine are an imperfect but powerful example of the huge impact cultural solidarity can have over external threats. Pray for Paris, paint for Paris or simply live for Paris – these messages help to create a culture vibrant, tolerant and resolute in the face of oppression.
Of course, it is much easier to talk about living normally in a perpetually threatened society than to actually live that way. ISIS will not be brought down with a smile. Military response is required, and it is reasonable for politicians to soothe society by hyping up their rhetoric in the aftermath of these tragedies. However, we must understand the difference between promising an effective response and rushing to commit to bigger and quicker action than the next country. It is when a temporary state of emergency extends into prolonged reactionary panic that a country is at risk of creating more global aggression rather than genuinely resolving the deeper issues that cause terrorism.
As compassionate bystanders who have known the national mourning incurred by such acts of extremism before, we must extend our sympathies to these countries and share in their grief. Nonetheless, as citizens of a wider global community, we owe it to them and to the countries of their attackers not to commit to mere retaliation, but to resolution. Revenge attacks which could so easily harm more innocent citizens in ISIS-occupied territories will ruin more than what they fix – similar warnings were made about Afghanistan in 2001, and their dismissal render Western interventionists entirely culpable for that nation’s present fragility. For a while, let us simply light candles rather than chasing arbitrary vengeance; as individuals and nations, let us take the time to consider our position, progress with a real plan of stabilisation in areas affected by terrorism, and strive to prevent anyone else having to light such a candle for the foreseeable future.