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The Attacks in Paris and Our Responsibility to Work Toward an Open and Tolerant Society

Wolfersweiler, Germany.

On 11 September 2001, when airplanes flew into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York and killed many hundreds of people, the young men who spread death, terror and destruction in Paris last Friday were still children. For as much as we know, they grew up in human and social conditions that few of us can even imagine. They grew up fearing attracting attention to themselves and being branded as potential terrorists if they were a bit too religious (in the eyes of the West) or frequented Arab circles a bit too often. They also saw that the West shows little reservation in bombing what they considered their “home countries” and killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people in order to guarantee the ’safety‘ of its citizens.

However, safety cannot be guaranteed. Airplanes, public building and politicians can be protected, but there is no way to guarantee the safety of citizens. Those who oppose the ’system‘ that, in their eyes constitutes a destructive and life-threatening force may strike anywhere. To them, it makes little difference who dies, as long as their actions create death, destruction, fear and, of course, more violence as a reaction. Safety can only be achieved if we start to realize and admit to ourselves that these angry young men are a product of our world. They are not just strangers that are driven by some perverted ideology. They are the result of a long series of misjudgments from our part and from our callousness when it comes to identify potential suspects and hit them with bombs and drones in order to restore “order” and “safety.”

It is a cliché, of course, but there is no doubt about its truthfulness: for every terrorist we kill, ten others take his place. Has it not been reported, with furtive pride in almost all media on Friday morning, that we had, once again, “liquidated” an IS “commander” in a drone attack? There will be no trial, no opportunity for defense or the chance to explain motives. The number of casualties that this operation caused will never be known. The sad truth is that thousands of young men grow up in a world in which premeditated killings take place on an almost daily basis when army personnel from thousands of miles away push a button. Is it really surprising that some of them lose their wits, strike back and create even more violence and the death of many innocent people?

With regards to Islamist terror (and almost any other problem) our politicians follow a simple, indeed primitive, reasoning. Not only does it not solve any problems, it constantly creates more of them. Just imagine the scale of the short-sightedness. Last week, the EU organised a Europe-Africa summit in Malta. It all had to go very quick. The result is that we promise the Africans some pittance on the condition that they make real efforts to keep their people in their own countries. Does anyone believe that this will work? At the same time a summit on Syria was organized. The purpose was to search for a peaceful solution in a very short range of time. This comes after years of military and other interventions that increased the chaos, misfortune and suffering in the country. And a peace agreement is still far off. As long as the West insists that Assad cannot be part of a settlement, the carnage and the destruction will continue. Has the time not come to reconsider this position? There was no discussion about a long-term economic strategy for Africa, just as there was no real discussion about a peace strategy for Syria and the entire Middle East. This is the world we live in. One crisis after another wakes politicians up from a deep sleep. We never anticipate anything. We never deal with the underlying causes of anything.

Unsurprisingly, the agitators now beat the drum of war more than ever before. They argue for more violence, ‚until the last terrorist is eliminated.‘ But the last terrorist is a fiction; the system will always breed new ones. And President Hollande was the first to find the wrong words on Friday evening. He talked about a war. Bur nobody declared a war and nobody wants to fight one. In a war, there is a clearly defined enemy, an army with a limited number of men. This situation is altogether different. Here the question is one of restructuring our societies and the international political system in such ways that young people no longer consider the use of deadly violence against the state and its citizens as a viable strategy to ease their problems. In the aftermath of Paris, the correct answer is clear: the drone war and the bombings of Syria have to end immediately and the youngsters in Europe who risk radicalisation and consider to engage in terrorism should be listened to. What are their grievances? What can we do to improve the situation?

September 11, 2001 has changed our world in many ways. Above anything else, it brought to the fore questions of what governments can and must do in order to prevent acts of violence. Answers were given, but they were the wrong answers. Limitless spying and surveillance of people, torture and imprisonment in Guantánamo and other places, such as secret prisons, and the unlawful drone killing operations led to the dismantling of the rule of law and our constitutional rights and liberties on a scale that was considered unimaginable and impossible thirty years ago.

Politicians in Germany and France and elsewhere continue to look away systematically. They do not want to bother. We will not accuse our allies of violating international law and human rights law. This is, however, exactly what we should have done already a long time ago. In not speaking up, we created the impression that there are double standards and that we are fine with that. The abnegation of our responsibilities made us into accomplices. It is now time to understand that the goal does not justify the means. This principle applies to everyone and to every situation. Above anything else, it applies to the state.

The worst possible reaction comes from those who eagerly postulate a connection between the terrorist attacks and the refugee crisis. Their numbers will be significant. The extreme right abuses the attack in Paris to demand the closure of borders and the massive expulsion of Syrians. The fact that the refugees are themselves the victims of extremist violence counts for nothing. They also conveniently forget that the assassins of Paris probably spent their entire lives in Europe. They probably come from extremely deprived urban areas, which may explain their radicalisation. And even if one of the terrorists entered Europe as a refugee, as many media suggested, wrongly as it turns out in the meantime (the Syrian passport found at the Stade de France is a fake and it is unknown to who it belongs), what does it prove? Should we suspend the United Nations Convention of 1951 which deals with refugees and asylum seekers because one terrorist slipped through the mazes of the net? The truth of the matter is that many traumatised people will come our way. Their fate depends primarily on our reactions and our daily interactions with them. The most ordinary things carry importance. I experienced it yesterday at an airport. Hundreds of passengers pass through customs without being searched, but two young men with black hair and a dark complexion and one coloured woman are stopped. We can act as if skin colour is somehow correlated with being a terrorist risk, but we would be wrong. We need to stop all of this and work towards an open and tolerant society with equal rights and equal treatments and dignity for all. That is our only chance to overcome the hatred.

This is an updated version of an article that was published on flassbeck-economics November 16.

Translation W. Denayer.

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Heiner Flassbeck directs Flassbeck-Economics. He was State Secretary in the German Ministry of Finance, was adviser to Oskar Lafontaine (former leader of Die Linke) and was Chief of Microeconomics and Development at the UN Conference on Trade and Development.

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