Friday’s attacks in Paris were horrific and shocking, as is the emerging story about the terrorist bomb which destroyed the Russian plane over Egypt. 129 killed in Paris and 224 killed in the plane crash. Non-combatant civilians indiscriminately slaughtered. Horror. Our sympathy rightly goes out to those who are left behind.
But here’s the deal: the only power terrorism has is the power to invoke fear and anger. So we need to be very careful about how we respond to these atrocities. President Putin has, reportedly, vowed to “find and punish” those responsible. President Hollande has referred to Friday’s events as a “act of war”. This is fighting talk: retribution and war. The message is that we are frightened and angry, which is exactly what the terrorists want.
In fairness to Presidents Putin and Hollande, they were speaking in the immediate aftermath of the events. And what does one say in such a moment to a nation which is reeling? But as the immediacy of the situation begins to pass, supreme cool-headedness is now called for.
And this is what cool-headedness will tell us: terrorism is not a serious threat. Every one of us is far, far more likely to die tragically in any number of other ways (or, even more likely, to die in our beds). For comparison, France loses around 3,000 people per year to road deaths and Russia a staggering 28,000. Russia loses 460,000 people a year to heart disease. France, much better, loses only 20,000 (based on data here). This is the perspective within which to view acts of terrorism. (And, to give the BBC their credit, they have very calmly observed the same). Against this background, terrorism should have very little power over us.
This point is staggeringly important because ISIS and its sympathisers want to strike terror into the heart of the Western world. Cool-headedness will deny them exactly that. What terrorists desperately want is to be noticed. They want a feeling of power over the world. And, when we allow ourselves to be terrorised, we give them that feeling of power. We should stop doing this!
But it goes further than this. The Western world has shown a disastrous tendency towards extreme responses to terrorism. Think of the Iraq war, which has resulted in hundreds of thousands of Iraqi deaths. This is a shockingly disproportionate response to 2977 deaths caused by 9/11. Many of those deaths were “collateral damage”, which is a chillingly cynical bit of spin-doctoring to cover up the truth that these were non-combatant civilians indiscriminately slaughtered – just like in Paris and Egypt!
So the cycle of violence turns. Tit-for-tat, in ever-increasing acts of retribution. How can we be so stupid? When our children say “but he hit me first”, we long for the day they will grow up and learn more mature ways of handling difference. But when a country or terrorist organisation does the same, supposedly-mature adults fly off the handle and hit back.
Indeed, where is the evil, really? Is it in the 2977 killed in 9/11 or in the hundreds of thousands killed in Iraq? Cool-headedness would say all of this was evil. Hot-headedness, on the other hand, chooses to ignore the lives lost to the other side. Hot-headedness would justify any act on the basis of just the 2977 or the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. Who will have the courage to be cool-headed and to stop the cycle?
And this takes us even further. The West is responsible not just for disproportionately violent responses to terrorism. It is also, through its capitalist hegemony, responsible for trampling the third-world poor into the dust. ISIS notices this too and holds it against us. To their eyes, we are the evil of which the world needs ridding. And, scarily, the Bible would tend to agree on this point: God is outraged when the poor are exploited.
So, far from reacting with violence to terrorism, we need to respond with repentance. We need to get our own house in order. Otherwise we will have lost the ideological war before it starts and we will never see the end of terrorism. There will always be more young hot-bloods who can be persuaded to take up arms against our “evil ways”. Indeed, the only thing violence might bring us is another World War – if we manage to drive a wedge between the West and Muslims as a whole.
And, now that we begin to see things from the perspective of our enemy, we might even be able to start becoming people of forgiveness. We might, if we’re incredibly brave, take the example of Emmanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina, which was so quick to publicly forgive Dylann Roof for shooting and killing nine of their members while they worshipped. People who refused to be embittered, who refused vengeance, defiantly declaring “We won’t let your hate win!”
Might we be able to be cool-headed people? Might we be able to be people of repentance? Might we be able to be people of forgiveness? Might we be able to be people of peace?
At this point a warning must be sounded. There are many who stand to gain from an escalation of violence. Powerful and influential lobbies. Large multinationals which supply the world with weapons. Shadowy individuals with deep pockets and malign motives (who pays for all those AK-47s?). Politicians, police and army commanders who gain power when anti-terrorism measures are introduced. Powerful voices which influence our media and our government policies. Powerful voices which lure the young idealist into that suicide vest. Powerful voices, whose cynicism knows no bounds. Powerful, but also silky smooth: voices ever urging all of us, whether Westerners or Muslims (and, especially, Western Muslims) to fear and to hate. Always, we must be wary of these voices. Because of these voices, we must clamour all the louder for peace. And if you’re the praying sort, now is the time to cry out to the Lord to reach out his arm and break the rod of these usurpers.
But what of justice? Must we just let the perpetrators of Friday’s atrocities off? Well, no. For a start, forgiveness can only ever be complete when the the fullness of the wrong is fully understood. Friday’s acts were pure evil. We must be clear about this. But we must also be clear about the evil in “collateral damage” and economic injustice. If we’re to sue for justice against Friday’s attackers, we must be just as quick to sue for justice against the West.
But then, perhaps, we want to be suing, instead, for mercy and amnesty. This was the genius of Archbishop Tutu and Nelson Mandela when they set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. Faced with a long history of brutal acts by all sides, nothing else could be done except to tell the truth, plead for clemency and forgive. This was not an easy path and was much criticised – not least by me – but history has shown how wrong I was and how right Tutu and Mandela were.
Where does this leave us? ISIS, when all is said and done, is a rag-tag organisation that is dwarfed by the Western world’s military might. And even their most daring and successful endeavours – the very best they can muster – are shamed by plain old road accidents and heart disease. They can scratch Goliath, but they cannot do any long-term damage to anything but his pride.
The only power terrorism has is that of inciting terror. We do not need to be terrorised. We have in our hands the power to rob terrorism of all its threat. To expose it for the absurdity it is (more people die even from being tangled in their bedding than from terrorism). When all is said and done, the recent terrorist activities are a horrible tragedy for a few. But for Western nations as a whole they are nothing. ‘Tis but a flesh wound. We have nothing to fear. But we do need to learn to repent and to forgive and to sue for peace and reconciliation at every turn.