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Kill All the Terrorists?

The violence we employ to defend civilization feeds the very forces that imperil it.
Terrorist Sniper

The murderous attack earlier this month in Nice, France, prompted Jay Nordlinger, senior editor at the ostensibly conservative National Review, to propose a new approach to dealing with terrorism. His strategy is simplicity itself: “you have to kill these jihadists, and kill them, and kill them, until they simply tire of being killed and leave civilization alone.”

If by “civilization” Nordlinger is referring to Europe and the United States, then his proposal comes a couple of centuries too late. In their relations with the non-West—the peoples of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East—Western powers have rarely demonstrated a desire to be left alone. They have instead sought to subjugate and exploit populations classified as inferior. In pursuit of their objectives, they have relied not on suasion but on violence and intimidation.

To be sure, present-day Europeans and Americans bear no responsibility for the sins that their forbears committed in civilization’s name. Neither, however, should they indulge in the pretense that hostility toward the West today springs out of nowhere. History resists whitewashing. Although the tide of Western imperialism may have receded, it left behind a stain that time has yet to eradicate.  

This describes the essence of the strategic dilemma that Europeans and Americans confront today. Having belatedly discovered the virtues of peaceful coexistence, Western nations confront adversaries who have long memories and a hunger for payback. Yesterday’s instigators have become today’s targets and cry foul. Now that we have all that we want, they say, please go away.

Yet as attacks inflicted upon the West pile up—Paris, Brussels, San Bernardino—it becomes apparent that violent jihadists won’t be going away anytime soon. As a consequence, support for a keep-killing-until-they-quit approach is gaining momentum. Nordlinger is not alone in calling for escalation. Donald Trump has demanded a declaration of war against ISIS. His running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, proposes to “defeat this enemy of civilization at its source.” Bloodlust is on the rise.

Such sentiments feed off the populist mood increasingly evident not only in Europe but also in the United States. An abiding characteristic of populism is a belief in simple solutions to complex problems. To purify the temple, throw out the moneylenders. To restore social harmony, expel all those who are different. To ensure peace, eliminate with prejudice all those suspected of posing a threat.

The problems with this line of thought are legion. For starters, it assumes an ability to distinguish between guilty and innocent—between violent jihadists at home and abroad and the rest of the planet’s 1.6 billion Muslims.

Implicit in Nordlinger’s formulation is the suggestion that present circumstances may have rendered such distinctions unnecessary, with anyone deemed at odds with “civilization” eligible for extermination. Note that in the case of Nice, few Western observers waited for investigators to identify the motive behind the attack, the perpetrator’s Tunisian origins’ being sufficient to incorporate the incident into the narrative of radical-Islamist violence directed against the West as a whole. It’s the equivalent of assuming that any shooting of a black male by any police officer is necessarily the direct result of racism.

Even more fundamentally, Nordlinger’s proposal collides with this further problem: Why hasn’t the Western killing perpetrated thus far yielded signs of progress? Although the fact garners only passing attention among Europeans and Americans, the number of Westerners killed by terrorists pales in comparison to the body count racked up in recent years by the United States and its allies in the Islamic world. While estimates of the overall death toll range widely, one reputable 2015 study calculated that a staggering 1.3 million Muslims have died due to violence since 9/11—jihadists and suspected jihadists along with mere bystanders categorized as collateral casualties. Yet no evidence exists to show that this vast bloodletting has diminished the threat.  

By implication, our work has just begun, with the counter-jihad now underway destined to last for years, if not decades. In the meantime, the agents of Western civilization, armed to the teeth with high-tech weaponry and justified by self-serving arguments, will presumably have to kill millions more.

When the day of victory finally arrives, we may wonder what will then remain of the values we are ostensibly defending.

The West today finds itself caught in a paradox of its own making: Violence employed by prior generations claiming to represent civilization has elicited a violent response; the violence we employ today to defend that civilization actually feeds the very forces that imperil it.

Andrew J. Bacevich, professor emeritus of history and international relations at Boston University, is author, most recently, of America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History.