On Nov. 13, Paris was hit by a series of terrorists attacks. By the night’s end, a barrage of shooting and suicide bombings left about 130 people dead and hundreds more injured. This was the most deadly attack France has faced since World War II.
The reaction from the tragedy naturally sparked widespread fear across the globe, particularly in Western countries. Collectively, the public’s heightened fear has initiated a call for immediate security from our national governments. Although this is a natural human reaction, the response is socially and politically misguided.
Emotionally speaking, our fear of terrorism is warranted. After witnessing terrorist activity in Paris (in addition to that in Beirut and Mali), people became increasingly intimidated. They should be.
Since technological advancements have spread to more people with no official (or elected) power, the capacity of an individual or small group of people to cause extensive destruction has become a growing concern. As Moises Naim argues in “The End of Power,” technological developments over the past few decades have allowed for the widespread dispersion of information and more complex social groupings. The result has led to more power concentrated in the hands of fewer, thereby diminishing the influence of our elected officials and institutions. Typically, this power is positively utilized, improving education levels and individual autonomy. However, in the wrong hands, increased power can be devastating.
The increased capacity for widespread destruction by a small number of organized deviants increases the threat of terrorism. Consequently, watching this destruction unfold makes our lives appear more precarious and therefore more precious. As we are exposed to traumatic series of human suffering through innumerable media channels, we, in turn, feel pressing sadness, despair and fear in our hearts and minds, as if the attack had occurred to us.
Initially, people’s fear from these lethal attacks expose humanity’s most beautiful trait: empathy. When we connect emotionally with others in harm’s way, we often offer charitable and emotional support. Expression of empathy allows us to care for people we’d otherwise be unconnected with, living halfway around the world. Unfortunately, empathy, in the background of intense terrorism, leads to fear, as we personally imagine confrontation with terrorism. And while fear alone is manageable, when it drives our political and social decisions, it’s problematic. In America’s recent history, we’ve entertained a path driven by fear. The results have been tragic.
After the planes hit the World Trade Center in 2001, the natural human reactions of empathy, sadness, despair and fear brewed in America. Ultimately, these feelings galvanized a sense of need for national security, leading to two wars, and the creation of Guantanamo Bay (along with torture-ridden black sites). In the former, we were left with mounting human fatality and trillions of dollars wasted. In the latter, according to scholar Joseph Margulies, many innocent people were abused without due process under the law. What’s more, our fears of terrorism have likely endured 14 years after 9/11, as President Barack Obama has been unable to remove all American troops from Afghanistan and is continuously rebuffed when he attempts to close Gitmo.
As noted, our fear-driven behavior and decisions in light of harrowing terrorist attacks are not completely uncalled for; they are a natural reaction to human suffering. In turn, we search for security. Our fear-driven response galvanizes us to ensure America’s safety, liberty and democracy. On the surface, this appears good. We want to shield Americans from unjust harm. However, our push for safety becomes problematic when we infringe on the liberty and security of foreigners, in addition to American citizens.
Our priority for safety is made in light of terrorism’s challenge — offering us a choice between safety and liberty. The more personal liberty we maintain, the more at risk we are of terrorist acts. This initiates a controversial debate — should we abrogate our values and personal liberty for the sake of security? Should we do everything in our power to keep American citizens safe, even if that means invasive National Security Agency techniques and locking people away without due process? In response to terrorism, our initial instincts have led us to choose the former; we have done everything possible to keep American citizens safe even while disregarding the rights of individuals. However, in times of fear and uncertainty, maybe it would be more helpful to reconsider how we view terrorism.
Maybe, as David Foster Wallace suggests, we should consider those who die at the hands of terrorists to be martyrs, who’ve sacrificed their lives for freedom, liberty and democracy. In reality, the alternative seems much worse. The late author ventured down this path when he asked if Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, the PATRIOT Acts, warrantless surveillance, etc. are worth protecting Americans’ safety? And let’s be honest, when these institutions claim to protect “Americans’ ” safety, they’re really excluding Muslim Americans or any person one could associate with the Middle East.
Today, the attacks in Paris — striking fear into the general public — have occurred in the midst of a critical foreign policy issue: the Syrian refugee crises. Many American governors have made a choice: increase security and refuse to accept Syrian refugees, presumably because they believe Muslims to be the root cause of terrorism. Again, misguided fear has become an immediate social problem in today’s political climate. Again, America is on a track that actively and passively abuses the rights of others. Unfortunately, terrorism — the cause of our fear and vulnerability — justifies these actions to the public, allowing our representatives to make very poor, prejudicial decisions. Ultimately, representatives overlook the cause of terrorism: the lack of autonomy, agency and political rights terrorists feel, leading them to cause great harm to others. Our reaction does more than propagate Islamophobia. Our reaction destroys the possibility for resolve, the end to terrorism and relief for its victims.
Our prejudice won’t help us understand why these people do what they do — what is influencing people to want to cause mass destruction. After all, terrorists are humans even if they act inhumanely. Therefore, they are driven by the same human instincts as the rest of us. If we begin assessing them as such, we can fairly and objectively question what they do and why they do it. Instead, we consider persons who allegedly conduct acts of terrorism to be inhuman, and dismiss them of their full rights under the law. Unfortunately, infringing on terrorists’ civil liberties will not get America any closer to eradicating terrorism.
Of course, having read this far (and probably declaring me a tree-hugging liberal hippie), you may be asking, what about your life? Are you not afraid of putting your life in jeopardy of a massacre? And, furthermore, what about the families that are randomly taken, the lives lost? Should we not do everything possible to bring these victims restitution?
From my view, infringing on the rights of others is not the proper way for victims and their families to heal from terrorism. Sacrificing my personal values — liberty, justice, due process under the law for all global citizens — is worth my life. The alternative — persecuting others due to excessive fear and prejudice — is much worse.
Today, our political, domestic and international systems ensure that we don’t arbitrarily destroy a human life or strip it of all its value, even if that human life has committed deplorable crimes. In other words, our nations have made themselves responsible for protecting individuals by laws and processes that place value on human lives. Personally, I don’t want to live in a place where my government stops deeming all people as humans, unworthy of minimum respect and dignity. Warring (relatively) arbitrarily with nations and indiscriminately sorting people in institutions like “black sites” and Guantanamo Bay epitomizes this place. There’s much more terror I feel from that prospect than anything an extremist with a weapon can do to me.
Sam Corey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.