On Being Precise

I have been gently prodded to write this by my cousin in Tarn-et-Garonne. She writes that she is waiting for my comments the Paris Black Friday Bloodbath, and, you will realise, she is not talking about some American-import shopping spree.

It is not for want of trying that I have not written before. Nearly three weeks on from that terrible, bloody, pointless night, I have no coherent thoughts about the act itself, the men who carried it out, the cause in whose name they created such carnage, or what an effective response might be. Yes, I am revolted by the cruelty of it all. Yes, I have no sympathy with the killers ortheir cause. Yes, I am determined not to let any group of terrorists deter me from living life to the full. But of this particular barbarity itself, I can find nothing to say that will explain it or enlighten you in any way. So I take Wittgenstein’s aphorism to heart – Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

But even the most slothful sloth, made speechless by the event itself, must have thoughts about the context in which it happened, the fallout, and the way ahead. This sloth cannot ignore the constant news of our continent ‘going to war against terrorism’; of bad bills limiting our freedoms rushed through sundry parliaments; of decisions by many countries to bomb Syria to rid it of jihadist (oh, and also Assad) even if it means sending it back to the dark ages. All this is disturbing enough to make a sloth think.

I have form where terrorism is concerned. For more than thirty-five I worked in London, in buildings that were on IRA target lists; commuted through target stations; used targeted public buildings. We learned to take a few basic precautions, the IRA got through and bombed us from time to time, but life continued pretty much as before. We lived our lives as we would have done anyway, and survived to see the IRA, and their Protestant counterparts, for what they really were – armed, criminal thugs.

I lived and worked in Jamaica, in Kingston, during the first half of the ‘70s, when the civil war that we called ‘political violence’, first broke out in all its glory. Terrorism was the main strategy of both sides; nightly shoot-outs the norm; gun laws, gun courts, curfews the State’s response. We learned to take a few basic precautions, we didn’t drive through ‘war zones’, the violence was visited on people we knew from time to time, but life continued pretty much as before. We lived our lives as we would have done anyway, and survived to see the PNP and JLP militias for what they really were – armed, criminal gangsters.

So I have some experience of getting through this grim stuff.

Today I live, and sometimes work, in France, where we have been attacked twice this year by an enemy about whom we know amazingly little. France is not alone. The same enemy has staged terrorist attacks in other European countries, and in Asia and Africa. We know something of their numbers, where they live, what they do; much of what we know comes from unreliable sources – official and unofficial – and from their own, very effective publicity machine. So, in our public debate, we seem to characterise IS, or ISIS, or Daesh, in the terms of its own publicity, and rarely, if ever, in terms of what it really is.

If I am right about this, that we are as yet ill-informed about the true nature of our enemy, then, as long as that ignorance lasts, we will be unable to formulate an effective response. As a humble rural sloth, I have no idea what we should do, but I know that there must be something effective that can be done. I also know that we will not find it if we continue to flail out in ignorance – sending a bomber here, doing a deal with an evil dictator there, charging about everywhere. What we need is a good understanding of what is really happening out there; why these people are doing these things – the reality that lies behind their propaganda; their strengths and weaknesses.

But most of all, we need a dose of precision, to be minutely exact in the words we use about this situation and sharply define the realities. So, to get the ball rolling, here is a start in three paragraphs:

  • President François Hollande, like George Bush and Tony Blain before him, declares that we are at war against terror. Well, to be precise, terrorism is a strategy or a tactic, not an enemy. We cannot fight a war against terrorism, any more than we can fight a war against containment. To counter the strategy or tactic of terrorism, we must first know all there is to know about the enemy deploying the strategy. Basic Sun Tzu: Know your enemy. Armed with that knowledge we can work out effective counter-strategies and defeat him. I realise that President Hollande, and any other world leader, after an event like the attack on Paris and with everyone demanding action, will find it very hard to just take time to think precisely. But ill-informed action is worse than none at all: just think Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan.
  • Do we know precisely what is going on in the Middle East? I doubt it. Babies see the world quite differently from adults. Their view is distorted by awareness only of their needs and feelings; having not yet developed a sense of context that includes the needs and feelings of others, they only appreciate their own, distorted, point of view. We are like that when bad things happen to us. So a terrorist attack in our back yard looms large, obscuring an even bigger catastrophe that may lie somewhere behind. It seems to me that this is happening to us in Europe now. We are interpreting the attacks in Paris, and Brussels, etc., as an attack on our way of life, our culture, our very existence, when in fact it is probably a side-show to another circus, collateral damage from another battle. To find out if this is indeed the case, we must get a precise understanding of the real situation in the Middle East. This reality is, I believe, a civil war between Arabs. The sides in this war represent a confusing variety of causes, civil, political and religious, and this obscures the real nature of the conflict. We see what we want to see: brave youth struggling for democracy in the Arab Spring; repressive, entrenched elites enforcing their order; fanatical jihadists imposing Islam; gangster states protecting their criminal enterprises. But in reality this is a struggle between, on one hand, an older generation of supporters of a largely secular, Arab Nationalism that prevailed through the middle and late years of the 20th Century, but failed to deliver good government and growing prosperity for all; and on the other, a younger generation that wants a better world, but cannot agree what that better world looks like, but are still willing to shed blood to achieve their uncertain goals. Like in all civil wars, the casus belli are incomprehensible to those outside the civitas at war. We intervene at our peril. Paris, and the other attacks, are warnings to us that for as long as we don’t really understand what is going on, we should stay out of the cauldron.
  • There is a tendency in Europe to conflate the current refugee crisis with the terrorist threat from Daesh and other jihadists, and it is true that one or more of the terrorists who carried out the Paris attack entered the EU posing as Syrian refugees. But they didn’t need to enter that way: as EU born nationals of France and Belgium they could have come in quite legitimately by any number of other routes.  There are also a small number of deluded young men and women in our towns and cities who can be summoned to do carnage with a simple Skype call. The refugee crisis and the terrorism are consequences of the same civil war, but are not to be confused with each other. Nor, if we are rational, should we be afraid to welcome refugees from this civil was, even at the risk of some bad apples arriving in the crop. The ‘little-Europe’ lobby and the madder fringe-conspiracy theorists, would have us believe that ‘The Muslims’ are taking over Europe, are ‘swamping us’, and will force us all to be like them, i.e. like the jihadists. (They never mention the vast majority of Muslims: law abiding doctors, and lawyers, and farmers, and teachers, and shoe makers, and street cleaners and poets and scientists who lead lives indistinguishable from the rest of us.) To counter this way of thinking we must be very precise, this time about numbers:
    • The population of the EU is just over 500 million. Of this number, 31 million or 6.2 percent, were born outside the EU. The total population of Syria, as a immediate example, at the start of the war in 2011 was 23 million – that’s about 4.6% of the total population of the EU. So if every Syrian in Syria moved to the EU, still only just over 1 in every 10 members of the EU population would have been born outside the EU. Swamping? I don’t think so.
    • As for “the Muslims are taking over Europe”: of the EU’s total population of 500 million, 20.5 million are Muslims or from a Muslim background – that’s 4.1% of the population. Given current population growth and the total fertility rate (TFR) of the immigrant portion of that population, the figure will rise to 6% by 2030; but then begin to fall as the TFR falls to the same as the host population and the population ages. How would you imagine the 4.1% – or even the 6% – would go about persuading or forcing the rest of us, the 95.5% of largely sceptical Europeans, to convert to Islam?

Two final thoughts.

Despite the Paris attacks this year, the majority of terrorist attacks in Europe over the last 20 years have been carried out by political groups of the right and left, racist, anti-immigrant or anti-Muslim organisations and extreme nationalists of one stripe or another. Over that period the majority of victims have been either immigrants or Muslims. For some reason, most racist and anti-faith attacks are not recorded as terrorist related; although a petrol bomb through a family’s front window is a clearly terrorist attack, it is reported as a race crime throughout the EU. Nationalist attacks are often reported in crime statistics as ‘crimes of violence’.

Do not be afraid. Although the number killed in Paris two weeks ago takes the breath away, the odds of any one of us being affected by a terrorist attack, or being within 10Km of an attack, or knowing someone caught up in an attack are vanishingly small. So do not change your way of living, the risks are small, about as small as me being knocked down by an omnibus outside my front gate, on a road that is not a bus route!

4 thoughts on “On Being Precise”

  1. Your cousin in Tarn et Garonne, unfortunately, NOT the BBC superstar of underwater dancing, (whose name would in fact be more appropriately, Naiad, rather than Silvestre ) appreciates immensely the reassurance offered us by dear unperturbed Bradypus in these increasingly turbulent times.
    Yes, of course, there’s little chance, statistically, that any of us will ever be targeted by Black Friday Bloodbaths, or that Destiny’s Lottery will bestow on our insignificant little lives any other of those dreaded unlucky numbers. And, as I commented to him recently, religion run amok and worlds gone wacko, are agendas we Huguenots from Auch have coped with and survived already, centuries ago, prompting us to become notorious globe-trotters, our favourite pastime.

    Still, the rampant nationalism and accompanying paranoia sparked off by the recent slaughter have bequeathed massive dividends to undeserving politicians, and ay, there’s the rub….

    So the Crystal Ball promises endless opportunities for Baudelairien spleen and “nuits blanches” in France’s near future, and who knows where else ? Fingers crossed. Those dragons creep up so insidiously…

    Suggestion : See, on Facebook, for those who bother with it, Guy Robert Lombal, artist

      1. Thanks dear Jeremy
        By the way, any objections to my sharing your blog with about 75 former classmates, callef Fiftyniners., from St Andrew High School for Girls, connections to our colonial youth ??? Not all intellectual enough to appreciate your infinite wisdom, but one can lead a horse to the water,even though he hasn’t enough brains to appreciate its treasures.

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