A climate of fear is spurring gun purchases in the US and ill-conceived airstrikes by both France and Britain.
Another mass shooting has taken place in America. Last week, this author pointed out how mass shootings have become a way of life in the land of the free and the home of the brave. During that same week, a white Christian fundamentalist killed innocents at a Planned Parenthood clinic because he opposed abortion. This time, a Muslim fundamentalist couple killed 14 people and wounded 21 in San Bernardino, California. Frighteningly, it turns out that they were happily married and had a 6-month-old baby.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is treating the San Bernardino attack as a terrorism case. Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik were of Pakistani origin and had spent time in Saudi Arabia. Farook had grown up in the American Midwest and apparently turned radical after marriage. The couple were making bombs, stashing weapons and planning a massacre for a while. On Facebook, Malik posted her allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) around the time she and her husband began the massacre.
Predictably, Republicans and Democrats differed as to the cause and response to the shooting. Vox points out how Republicans changed from pious men offering prayers for victims to declaring war in a must-win “clash of civilizations.” For Republicans, more guns are the way forward. If people had their own guns, as in the days of the Wild West, they would be able to shoot down the bad guys. Ted Cruz, a Tea Party darling, thundered, “We don’t stop the bad guys by taking away our guns, we stop the bad guys by using our guns.”
President Barack Obama disagrees. He points out that “people on the no-fly list can walk into a store and buy a gun.” He rightly called this insane and declared, “If you’re too dangerous to board a plane, you’re too dangerous, by definition, to buy a gun.”
The Editorial Board of The New York Times, the newspaper of record in the US, brought out a front page editorial for the first time since 1920 to ask for a drastic reduction in the number of firearms. Even as it appealed to the nation’s “sense of decency,” Americans were “stocking up on guns and ammunition, bringing weapons into their daily routines and requesting refresher courses from firing ranges.” It is no surprise that less than 5% of the global population own more than 42% of the world’s privately held firearms. Mass shootings make the news, but suicide is the bigger problem.
A climate of fear is taking root in the US. Americans are easily spooked. Insulated from the Old World by two oceans, they are spoiled and soft. Unlike Europe, Asia, Africa and even Latin America, the US has avoided war on its soil since 1865, when its bloody civil war finally came to a close. The historic attack on Pearl Harbor does not really count because it happened a long way off. In truth, 9/11 was the first real attack on the US mainland since the British burnt the White House in 1814, a year before they defeated Napoleon at Waterloo.
The US reaction after the al-Qaeda attacks was one of panic. George W. Bush, a draft dodger who avoided combat in Vietnam, did not understand war. He reacted emotionally and led the US into Afghanistan for revenge and then into Iraq, which he had no reason to attack. It is interesting to note that Bush’s father, who fought in World War II, was not so gung ho about the war. George H.W. Bush had misgivings about his son’s rhetoric, “iron-ass” Dick Cheney and “arrogant” Donald Rumsfeld. They have proven to be right.
Retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, the former director of Defense Intelligence Agency, is more candid about where the US went wrong. In a recent interview with Der Spiegel, he has called the Iraq War a “huge error.” He also points out that “instead of asking why they attacked us, we asked where they came from. Then we strategically marched in the wrong direction.” Blunders by the US prepared the ground for civil war in Iraq and the takeover by IS.
Under Obama, the US is trying hard not to get into another morass. In contrast, Europe is reacting far more skittishly after the Paris attacks. French President François Hollande has declared war on the Islamic State, failing to realize the implications of conducting airstrikes in conjunction with the Russians. This pudgy mediocrity is plummeting in popularity and heading to electoral guillotine. In the last throw of the dice, he is trying to act Napoleonic in his foreign policy with the same stupidity that earlier French leaders demonstrated in Algeria and Vietnam.
British Prime Minister David Cameron has joined Hollande in supposedly taking the war to IS. He believes that “the risks of inaction are greater than the risks of taking action” and airstrikes will degrade IS over time. Cameron, who has a reputation for superciliousness and mendaciousness, called opponents of airstrikes “terrorist sympathizers.” Just as Tony Blair came up with fictional weapons of mass destruction, Cameron has magically conjured up 70,000 moderate Syrian forces raring to have a go at IS. Clearly, Cameron did not get Obama’s memo when he stopped training Syrian rebels.
Both Hollande and Cameron, an Old Etonian and an énarque, have a flawed understanding of terrorism, the Islamic State and indeed the Middle East. The Sykes-Picot world is dead. Both Iraq and Syria are merely de jure states that are fast disintegrating. Airstrikes will only kill a few IS fighters and some innocents. Military action can defeat an organization like IS, but achieving security requires some solution to the social, political and economic dislocation millions are experiencing on a daily basis.
Neither Hollande nor Cameron can do much in the Middle East. Obama still retains the key man for the region, but his hands are tied. Many Iraqis believe that the US is in cahoots with the Islamic State. It is no surprise that Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, an ally of the US, shot down Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s idea of an American expeditionary force based in Iraq. These American troops would have targeted IS, but now they find themselves unwelcome in the very country where they ran the show like cowboys.
Even as the discourse on terror heats up, so does the planet. The 21st session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 21) has begun in Paris. Simultaneously, southeastern India and northern Britain are experiencing massive floods. Tamil Nadu, the Indian state experiencing the floods, is in disarray. Flood waters and sewage have submerged the city of Chennai that faces risks of epidemics as waters recede. The Hindu, an iconic newspaper of the country, was not published for the first time since 1878. As this author pointed out last week, such floods and extreme weather conditions are now commonplace. This trend portends environmental disaster, economic catastrophe and much human suffering.
Terrorism is piffle when compared to climate change. Unprecedented weather conditions are wreaking havoc. If we fail to act, climate change will create a climate of fear far worse than the Islamic State.
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