Ideas Zygmunt Bauman on Europe and global terror

The Mis-Imagined War

The fight against global terror cannot be won with the current strategy, consisting in giving terrorist a global audience and waging war. Europe should instead reaffirm its core values and offer actual solutions to youth radicalisation within its countries, says the Polish sociologist.

Published on 13 April 2016 at 20:46

Has “the heart of Europe” been targeted with success, as so many opinion makers (for instance, a most authoritative and widely read The New York Times columnist, Roger Cohen) insinuated after the most recent terrorist assault in Brussels? Or should we condemn and avoid this symbolism so appreciated by terrorists?
That “heart” which the terrorists select, target and lean over backward to hit are those places in which TV cameras are plentiful, always around, and so are the press correspondents, forever thirsty for new shocking sensation guaranteeing high ratings for a few days. Ten times more victims murdered somewhere between the Tropic of Cancer and that of Capricorn (the likes of Somalia, Yemen or Mali) would stand no chance of amplification and magnification that the assaults on New York, Madrid, London, Paris, or Brussels offer.
It is in the latter places that whispers acquire the power of thunders; for a minute amount of expenditure – a flight ticket, a Kalashnikov, a primitive home-made explosive, and lives of one or a fistful of desperados – an aggrandizement-seeking schemer can obtain endless hours, days or weeks of free TV time; and, what matters most, trigger a new series of blows delivered by local rulers to the democratic values that they are called to protect and that the terrorists are bent on destroying.
That has been the major principle of global terrorists’ strategy from the very start: given the mediocrity of their own highly limited resources, they count on soliciting/mobilizing the by comparison unlimited, but in fact hugely vulnerable and by no means infinite resources of their declared enemies. The terrorists quickly – and cleverly – learn the art of conjuring up huge and growing publicity and fear-dissemination profits from modest and diminishing outlay – banking and betting on the zeal with which their adversary would be bound or would choose to assist in making their game schemes and expectations come true.
Terrorists manage (with our help, alas!) to make sure that wherever their outrage is committed its effects will reverberate all over the European Union. Today successive terrorist acts are ironically, one may say, the most powerful factors unifying the members of a Union in other respects coming asunder in many of its seams. The fear, the writing off of ever rising volume of resources on wall building, on sustaining a growing army of security organs and on commanding, buying and installing more and more fabulously costly spying gadgets in a vain hope of preventing the next and the next but one terrorist assault: this affects not only the directly assaulted places, but far away spots in the countries of “second speed” Europe – which the terrorists – having soberly calculated the probable cost/effects ratio – have no intention of attacking.
In direct opposition to Victor Orbán’s infamous oracle, “All terrorists are immigrants”, almost all terrorists operating on the European stage are home grown. The most crafty, shrewd and malevolent schemers, who concoct and command or solicit the successive terrorist acts from the safety of their far-away homes, may live in foreign countries – but their foot soldiers are recruited from among the deprived, discriminated against, humiliated, embittered and vengeful local youth facing – again with our direct or indirect, deliberate or flowing from neglect help – their prospectless future.
Keeping them in that state of deprivation is how social problems yearning for social action are transmogrified into security problems calling for military responses; this is perhaps the principal way in which our authorities cooperate with terrorists: by following the eye-for-eye rule instead of taking a higher moral ground combined with a radical as much as a long-term perspective, we continue to widen the recruiting area which the terrorist commanders are all too eager to deploy in full.
Not able to provide their co-religionists with meaningful (and us unwilling or just neglecting to do so) lives, Islamic fundamentalists offer them the second best (however putative) recipe for salvaging their damaged human dignity and self-esteem: a meaningful one. Many (though let us never forget, to the credit of our Muslim neighbours, that those “many” were and still are but a small minority of Muslims born and bred in European countries) surrender to the temptation, having tested other roads to human dignity but finding them impassable.
All too often we find in the newspaper headlines, in the comments of experts invited to the TV news studios, and in the speeches of the top-rank politicians, that we are in the state of war with terrorism. But “war with terrorism” is (for many reasons we have no room and no time to discuss here at length) nothing but an oxymoron. If applied to the current string of terrorist attacks and our responses to them, most – perhaps even all – metaphors referring to the experience of warfare engagement are misleading and guide thought in a wrong direction; they hide the truth of the present condition instead of enabling its comprehension. All in all, deployment of the warlike metaphoric in our attempts to sever the roots of global terrorism is highly ill-advised.
Most wars segregate combatants into winners and losers, triumphant and defeated. For that one reason our battle with terrorism cannot be classified into the category of wars. From this battle none of the sides (except perhaps the producers, sellers and smugglers of murderous weapons) may emerge victorious. The global arms trade – given in practice, if not in theory, a free ride, and guided by the lucre-greed of weapons merchants in cahoots with governments greedy for rising rates of GDP – has by now transformed the planet into a minefield, of which we know that explosions must happen there in a first awkward move but we can’t predict where and when an explosion will happen.
Weapons ready for criminal uses are abundantly available (and as Anton Chekhov instructed budding realist playwriters – “if there is a rifle hanging on the wall in the first act of a play, it must be discharged in the third”). Selection of targets is, after all, determined by the firing appliance at hand. According to the logic of instrumental rationality in reverse (“Let me know to what uses this appliance can be put”; “This it can do, and so I’ll do this!”), the new opportunities, possibilities and chances lead to the re-evaluation of the relative attractiveness of behavioural patterns open to choice, and by proxy revolutionize the probabilities of these rather than those lines of conduct that will tend to be more often selected among alternatives.
On the scale of our globalized planet, de-mining the minefields (or, for that matter, the other idea of castle-on-water category – erecting walls meant and hoped to stop migrants short of “our own backyards”) is hardly a proposition likely to become realistically effective in a foreseeable future. By comparison, the intention of cutting at the roots of the problem – that is, depriving the terror-lovers and promoters of the luxury of ample and still swelling recruiting ground of people forced or prompted to handle those weapons for iniquitous purposes – however fanciful it may seem by itself, sounds much more realistic.
The sole (but grave) reason to be afraid is the (hopefully small) possibility of Europe abandoning the values for which it stands and stooping to the terrorists’ mindset and code of behaviour – thereby committing, for all intents and purposes, a suicide as the home of truth, morality and beauty – as well as the birthplace of the ideas of liberty, equality, and brotherhood.

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