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On Paris and our fear

Simple candle by Adam Foster via Flickr CC
Simple candle by Adam Foster via Flickr CC Photo: Adam Foster via Flickr CC / Adam Foster via Flickr CC

Reflections from the AFSC Director of our Office of Public Policy and Advocacy on the recent ISIS attacks on Paris. - Lucy

Important perspectives on the violence in Paris last week have been articulated by many in recent days, highlighting human impacts across the globe out of the headlines, the 1.3 million people killed by the U.S.-led “war on terror” to date, the irony and cruelty of blaming Syrian refugees or Muslims globally for these acts, and the reality that white Americans are the greatest “terror” threat in the U.S. by far.

But there are feelings that are impervious to facts.

As news of the attacks in Paris spread this week, social media streams lit up with support.  The pain and fear was palpable – people felt hurt, vulnerable, defiant in their solidarity.  And while challenging the mode of response or the specific event that should prompt it, most have focused on the destruction wrought by ISIS, the urgency of response in some form.

As the world focused its horror and demand for global action on these violent acts, it yawned as another 16,000 children under the age of 5 died in that same, single day alone -- as they do each and every day according to UNICEF – of causes mostly preventable by proven and readily available interventions.  As those 16,000 young lives predictably ended as a result of the default choices of our societies, there was no outcry, no call for decisive global action, no pained solidarity or heated arguments among Facebook friends about the correct specific response – it would have been very strange to see our societies react otherwise. 

What causes some deadly threats – by certain causes, in certain places - to move us more than others?  What summons our empathy, triggers our anger?  What shapes our problem definitions, and the solutions that follow?

These are not questions the media will ask.  They are not questions our politicians will ask.  They are ours to ask, in our families, our Meetings, our communities, and within ourselves.

Candle lights by Esteban Chlner via Flickr CC

Many of us spend a great amount of energy pushing back on the bad ideas emerging from the narratives that govern our societies.  We share data and anecdotes, we protest, we scour for alternatives to propose, we repeat the mantras that seem so obvious from where we stand.  But have we tacitly accepted a false paradigm by engaging on these terms of debate?  What if ISIS is not the real problem here, but a symptom of a choice of focus on particular fears that our society has made so deeply, so universally, that few of right mind can imagine a world beyond it?

Interviews with captured ISIS fighters document the motivations of many driving this movement quite clearly – for the majority of rank and file there are stories of family losses and vulnerability, lives and hopes smashed in the ruins of endless war.  There is clear documentation that the war on terror has directly bred much of the violence we see today.  Simple math should tell us that you can’t kill violence that is born of violence -- yet our societies react with obsessive shock to each new round of violence directed at “us”, as if our airstrikes, drone strikes, or invasions had landed without a history or a future.  We repeat these motions as if they were new ideas each time.

Our societal fears and violent reactions are now so predictable that they have become integral to the strategies of groups like ISIS – there is evidence suggesting that ISIS sought to ensure Syrian passports were on the attackers for the very reason that they could predict a paroxysm of reactions to bar refugees, commit counter-violence, and isolate Syrians in ways that will ultimately fuel ISIS’s recruitment and the cycles of violence that result. As Hollande carries out his declaration that the French response will be ruthless, does anyone imagine that the leaders of ISIS find this in any way surprising?  Who exactly pays the price when world leaders (or U.S. governors) declare that they will slam the door on Syrian refugees, or blustering candidates threaten to shut down mosques?

We’ve seen this movie before.  We’re living in the sequel, and we will be back here in this cycle of violence and fear again and again until we learn to harness and redirect our reflexive societal reactions.

3 candles via owly9 via Flickr CC

We all live with the fight-or-flight traps set by our amygdala “lizard brains” in some way – as a Washingtonian I think twice before bringing my kids to big, high profile events that some part of me perceives as susceptible to threats, but I rarely think twice about putting them in the car where their risk of perishing is more than 1000 times higher (not to mention the certain harm to come in their lives from cumulative results of climate change).  But just as the bumper stickers on Priuses across the country suggest that we “be the change” we wish to see in the world, maybe we can begin to live the changes in narrative that break out of this repeating script by bringing some facts and awareness into our own fearful minds and hearts. 

ISIS is in the news. Deaths caused by this group’s violence are real and devastating.  So are those caused by major powers’ airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, and by the misplaced priorities of societies that let babies die by the thousands daily for lack of safe drinking water. Perhaps it is time to say out loud that variations on a theme of “violent extremism” are simply not our greatest threat – it is the fear in our own hearts that gives them power, provides the violent reactions they need for sustenance.  It is “us” that have chosen to focus our energy and resources on this boogeyman and those like it, and our fear-based violent responses have had devastating consequences for millions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and beyond. We can cut the fuel supply.

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About the Author

Robin Aura Kanegis serves as Director of Public Policy and Advocacy for the American Friends Service Committee. Prior to joining AFSC, she served as Director of Campaigns and Iraq Peace Campaign Director for the Friends Committee on National Legislation.