The grammar of 21st century terrorism is depressingly familiar by now.
First comes the outrage: Innocents savagely cut down going about their lives. Then the reaction, as politicians emote, 24-hour news speculates, and viewers gasp at the brazen, bloody theatrics.
We move quickly onto the clichés. “They hate us for our freedom.” “Terrorism is caused by alienation.” “There is nothing Islamic about violence.”
Then there are the recriminations, as cultural warriors volley blame back and forth from US foreign policy to Islamic clerics to poverty to “moderate Muslims” who do not declaim terrorism loudly enough.
The victims are identified and newspapers filled with heartbreaking collects of smiling mums and giggling children in happier times. Survivors give tearful interviews to daytime television and the “I was almost on that plane but arrived two minutes late” stories are taken up by the tabloids.
That is the stage we find ourselves at in the wake of the murder of 38 people at a beach resort in Sousse, Tunisia.
News coverage divvies up the dead into national categories and we retreat into our provincial shrouds and mourn our own. Many casualties are British, others German, Irish, or Belgian. The nationality of the victims is important to concerned relatives and friends back home but not essential to understanding the enormity visited upon defenceless people.
That the UK media should report this attack more extensively than others is not surprising given the high number of British fatalities but it risks obscuring the nature and objectives of Islamist terrorism. For horrific as these slayings are, British tourists are atypical victims.
On the same day as the Sousse attack, 27 worshippers were blown up in the Imam Sadiq Mosque in Kuwait. In May, 45 Ismaili Shias were gunned down in Karachi after their bus was ambushed by Pakistani terrorists. Thirty-four Afghans were murdered in a suicide bombing outside the New Kabul bank in Jalalabad in April. In March, 137 Muslims were killed in ISIS suicide bombings at two mosques in Yemen. The previous month, 21 people died in a Taliban attack on a mosque in Peshawar, Pakistan. At the start of the year, Islamists killed 37 people in the Yemeni city of Sanaa when they detonated a bus outside a police training academy.
These are a few examples chosen at random; there are many more. Muslims at work, Muslims at prayer, Muslims going about their lives, daily human sacrifices to an inscrutable god. Their deaths will not have made it past the foreign pages of your morning paper. You will not be familiar with their children’s smiles.
And yet Muslims in non-Western countries are the most common victims of Islamist nihilism. Every now and then some clever data journalist informs us that we’re more likely to be killed by our televisions or toddlers than by terrorism, factoids arrived at by a perverse logic of discounting the overwhelming majority of incidents. Muslim deaths don’t even make statistics, let alone the nightly news.
I am reminded of Le Monde’s declaration following the September 11 attacks that “we are all Americans”. Revisiting Jean-Marie Colombani’s leader, I wonder if people who don’t read beyond headlines might be onto something. Much of the article is what we might call “brave” – “Russia, at least in its non-Islamised areas, is going to become the main ally of the United States” – but the Parisian newspaper editor captured the trauma of a world grimly rent from the Nineties, that feel-good decade of denial.
History had not ended and its losers were seeking vengeance. Europeans could empathise with the slain New Yorkers because we shared a culture, a language, and a political inheritance. We were all Americans because we were all Westerners and any one of us could be next.
Le Monde, you will have noticed, has not informed us that we are all Iraqis or Syrians. Terrorism is shocking when it bloodies the streets of London or Paris or New York but the Middle East – that’s where those things are supposed to happen.
More than a decade on from 9/11, we can say that the world did change but that our resolve quickly faded. It is probably healthy that liberal societies do not tolerate entrenched conflict in far-off lands but disenchantment with the operations in Afghanistan and Iraq has coloured our outlook on foreign policy.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the United States. A majority of the country believes in the use of military force against terrorism but public support for airstrikes and ground operations have returned to pre-9/11 levels. Although there is some evidence that Americans are starting to rediscover an appetite for international leadership, this has yet to translate into support for concrete action.
Fifty-seven percent of Americans say their government must “do whatever is necessary” to defeat the Islamic State but 57% also oppose putting boots on the ground. Containment over military action is the preferred response to Iran’s nuclear ambitions by 45% to 29%, with almost one in five saying they pose no current threat.
The great tempting of America is not to what our professors railed against – imperialism, global hegemony – but to insularity. US global leadership is a few decades shy of its centenary and can too often seem fragile, imperilled by public fatigue and a lack of political will. Damned from the isolationist right as dreamy Wilsonianism, placarded by the anti-war left as neoconservative empire-building – it would be so much simpler just to withdraw.
Tony Blair warned against the seductions of “not our problem” in his prescient Chicago speech in 1999. Addressing US policymakers and the public beyond them, he appealed:
[T]hose nations which have the power, have the responsibility. We need you engaged. We need the dialogue with you. Europe over time will become stronger and stronger but its time is some way off. I say to you: never fall again for the doctrine of isolationism. The world cannot afford it.
Those words apply far beyond the United States today. In our ambivalence towards strong, concerted action against Islamist terrorism and rogue states, we are all Americans once again. The horror in Tunisia should teach us that ignoring global problems does not make them disappear. Mosques still burn and street markets still explode, even if they do so out of sight and out of mind.
When we sense danger, we in the West clamour for security but when others are under threat, we turn tediously introspective and agonise about the burdens of being “the world’s policeman”. “We in the West” must stop thinking in those very terms, or broaden our definition beyond physical borders. Islamism is no more a threat solely to people in Aleppo than communism was to people in Moscow.
In truth, we are not all Americans and nor are we all Muslims. We are who we are; we need not be anything else. But we have a shared interest in the maintenance and promotion of liberal precepts, democratic institutions, and free enterprise. These are not “Western” values but the universal toolbox for those seeking to build open and prosperous societies.
There are no national or faith-based distinctions in this struggle. British deaths should command our horror no more or less than Afghan deaths. Muslim women, gays, secularists, and reformers are owed our solidarity, moral and material, as much as Manhattan stockbrokers and French satirists.
We began with the stages of terrorism. The next stage is the response to Sousse and beyond that how we internationalise our counterterrorism strategy. The political class seems to have agreed on the pretty harsh sanction of refusing to call the Islamic State by its name. Our leaders are going to have to do better than that. Free societies need robust defence and solidarity demands more than semantics.