Sounding much like former president George W. Bush after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, French President Francois Hollande quickly declared the coordinated attacks in Paris on Friday night to be an “act of war.” Now Hollande is saying that ISIS must be “destroyed” rather than contained, and Americans are calling for a more militaristic response. The “war on terror” is being ramped up again, and if you don’t support such war, our belligerent patriots say, you are a fan of “appeasement.” It’s all simplistically black or white. Us or them.
Though France was already participating in the bombing war against ISIS positions in Iraq and Syria, on Sunday France, with help from the U.S., launched more airstrikes on the Syrian city and ISIS stronghold of Raqqa, dropping 20 bombs, according to reports. A report from the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights notes that the French bombardment may have done little to stop ISIS but has caused “panic” in the city. So far, no report of civilian casualties in Raqqa from the French attack but the risk of killing innocent Syrians in these retaliatory bombing runs is significant and such bombing attacks sow terror, at the very least, amidst an innocent population.
Declaring “war” on ISIS is, as Noah Feldman argues, a mistake for a number of reasons. Most importantly, an official “war” is precisely what such terrorists are seeking in order to gain prestige, power and more recruits. And once the word “war” is used and accepted, a military response becomes more likely, and thus a limited, democratic seeking of bringing murderous criminals to justice becomes an all-out and indiscriminate retaliation in which violence escalates into air strikes and armed invasions.
Arguing against military retaliation/intervention is not appeasement or surrender; it is an attempt to limit violence everywhere rather than escalate and provoke more violent extremism–above all, do no harm, do not add fuel to the fire. It is, ironically, a conservative and democratic response–do not get involved in justifying violence and hurting innocent people.
But many Republican politicians and pundits (and some Democrats) in democracy/peace-loving America are calling for yet another full-blown, armed invasion of a foreign nation in order to “destroy” ISIS with war. Just as we were going to destroy al Qaeda with war and bring harmony and peace to Iraq with war. A National Review editorial– “A Serious War Calls for a Serious Strategy“– is representative of this warmongering sentiment:
“Americans are understandably weary of war, but jihadists are still eager to fight, and wars do not end when one side grows tired of battle. Through its fecklessness and appeasement, the Obama administration has taught us all that bitter lesson. Withdrawal emboldens enemies and gives them new life.”
In fact, wars do end when one side chooses not to respond militarily; it takes two to tango and two, at least, to make war. What ISIS apparently wants, for some sense of legitimacy, is “war.” But we should treat terrorists, even terrorists as well-armed and organized as ISIS, like the stateless, violent extremists they are, that is, ideological criminals. They should be arrested, if possible, and tried.
When we wage war and war doesn’t work despite mass slaughter, or “works” only through mass slaughter, including slaughter of non-combatants, we then say, “Let’s try more war!” And those that cry the loudest for more war are those that because of age or education are not going to actually fight the war.
Democracy wins when the humane values of democracy–the recognition and practice of human rights– are upheld and asserted even in the midst of violent and inhumane oppression. When we choose war we choose the terms of tyrants and terrorists, even when we try to wage “moral” and legal wars. There are all sorts of ways that people and nations can wage effective nonviolent, democratic resistance against tyrants and terrorists, and we can start by looking at U.S. foreign policy and our failed history of military/covert interventions in the Middle East, as well as our contribution to the availability of all the deadly weapons that threaten the globe.
So our choice is not between war and appeasement: it is between mutual slaughter or brave, nonviolent methods of democratic resistance.