The Universal Notebook: Peace for Paris and beyond

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A friend at church gave me a Peace for Paris pin last week. The simple image of the Eiffel Tower as a peace symbol expresses solidarity with the suffering in France in the wake of terrorist attacks and hope for peace in the world. I wear the little black and white pin on my jacket, but it doesn’t really help.

What will it take to end the war on terror? How can peace ever be achieved with people who have no compunction at all about slaughtering innocent people? Frankly, I have no idea, but I’m pretty sure the Paris attacks have many people thinking these same troubled thoughts.

The angry, immediate response to such senseless carnage is retaliation. France sent off planes to bomb ISIS camps in Raqqa, Syria, just days after the U.S. reported killing brutal butcher Jihadi John with a drone strike in the same city. The apparent organizer of the Paris terror has already been tracked down and killed.

It is tempting in our outrage to think we can destroy Islamic terrorists with superior military force, just blow them off the face of the Earth, but these are stateless extremists who can and do live anywhere and everywhere. And every Taliban, al-Qaeda and ISIS member killed becomes a martyr who inspires more misguided young people to take up this unholy war.

I am not opposed to going after terrorists with all the tactical ferocity we can muster. But other than punishing the perpetrators of the latest atrocities and exacting a measure of revenge, I’m not sure how much good it ultimately does. Responding to the cold-blooded killing of innocent civilians via beheadings, suicide bombings and mass shootings with the impersonal, long-distance killing of terrorists via drone-launched missile strikes just begets more violence. And I doubt Americans have the stomach for sending tens or hundreds of thousands of troops to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

The endless cycle of attack and retaliation has been going on in the Middle East for so long now that no one knows who fired the first shot. We have a tendency to mark Sept. 11, 2001, as the beginning of the war on terror, but it might just as well have been Sept. 5, 1972, when eight Palestine Liberation Organization terrorists killed 11 Israeli athletes and coaches and one German police officer at the Munich Olympics. Surely, the failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute lies somewhere near the dark heart of the war on terror.

Violence that was once confined to the Middle East is spreading such that the threat of terrorist attack now informs everyday life globally. The sight of young men of Middle Eastern extraction and women in traditional Muslim dress makes people nervous, especially at airports. Peaceful Muslims are made to feel like criminals.

The anti-immigrant nativism being made manifest in the U.S. presidential race suggests that some Americans view all Muslims as potential terrorists. Even those of us who like to think we know better may sometimes wish Muslim communities in the U.S. were more outspoken in their condemnation of radical Islam.

But that presupposes that the terrorists really are Muslims, something truly devout Muslims deny, just as I would deny that Christian fundamentalists who perpetrate violence against abortion clinics are Christians. Responsible members of Muslim communities everywhere are on the front lines of the war on terror, helping authorities identify and track potential jihadists.

A coalition of eight leading American Muslim organizations immediately condemned the Paris attacks. Saba Ahmed, the founder of the Republican Muslim Coalition, said, “Terrorists are not representative of Islam in any way whatsoever …they have hijacked our religion.”

If we are ever to end this war on terror, I suspect we are ultimately going to have to come to some understanding of the root causes of terrorism, of the forces at work on a young person such that he or she comes to the conclusion that slaughtering innocent people is not only justifiable, but ordained. In some way I cannot fathom, answering the call to jihad must give meaning to a life without it, a taste of power to the powerless.

There is no religious justification for violence, yet religious violence seems to be the norm in history and in the present day. The war on terror increasingly feels like a battle between good and evil. We view ISIS as bloodthirsty barbarians and they view us as American devils.

So what will it take to change these perceptions? What will it take to end the war on terror? Stepped up bombings? Boots on the ground? Diplomacy? Regime change? Maybe. But, at this point, I suspect it is going to take a miracle.

Pray for peace. Pray for a miracle.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.