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Terra Incognita: The insidious genocidal evil of terrorism

The attack on churches on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka is yet another dark mark on the calendar that will become a further anniversary of our blood-soaked century. Unlike the 20th century where the machinery of state-sponsored genocide sought to remake society by murdering millions, our century is dominated by the slow but persistent mass murder of smaller groups of people by terrorists.

“Terrorist” is the whitewashed term invented to make us forget the horror, to numb us to the reality. The reality is that people sit at church or mosque or synagogue and are murdered as they were in Sri Lanka, in New Zealand, Pittsburgh, or in Sinjar, Quetta and so many places. This isn’t terror. These aren’t “blasts” as they are often called, as if a gas leak killed people. This is genocidal. Whether it is the systematic targeting of Shiites in Pakistan and Afghanistan by the Taliban, al-Qaeda and ISIS, the targeting of Christians in Nigeria, or the murder and enslavement of Yazidis in Iraq, this is genocide. It is a global campaign of genocide.

We’ve lived under this shadow for decades now, but we’ve never been able to fully step back and look at it from above. Terrorism is death by a thousand pinpricks. It is the little things that slowly kill society. Suddenly there are armed soldiers everywhere in Europe. Now people have to go to synagogue on Shabbat with police standing guard. Mosques need special protection. People are under siege. Schools, shopping centers, airports – our whole global way of life has been changed by a globalized wave of, mostly far-right religious-inspired terror attacks.

The origins of terror

For many years we didn’t understand the terrorist elephant in the room. In each country the fight was ostensibly different. That is the way it was portrayed for decades. One type of terror threatens Italy, another type threatens Russia, another threatens Kenya and still another threatens Japan. That was an earlier era, the 20th century, when terrorism, derived from the roots of various extremist movements from anarchist to fascist, used bombings and other means to spread terror. That was where the term came from.

The 20th century witnessed the rise and fall of many “terrorist” groups. It was against this backdrop that a definition for terrorism was created. It usually goes something like this: “The unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.” This took many forms but we generally knew what they were. Some terror attacks were used by liberation movements fighting against foreign occupation or colonial authorities. Some were part of the communist or fascist struggle of far Left against far Right, or part of a class struggle. Some of these groups in Europe and elsewhere were made up of disaffected middle-class youths, like the sort who joined the Red Army Faction in Germany.

But whatever their forms most of these groups stopped their terror either when some political aim was achieved, such as an independent Algeria, or when they were defeated. Some morphed into political movements, like those who came to run South Africa or Uruguay. Although previous generations of terror groups had international connections, such as the IRA and Palestinian groups being linked via Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, most fought their own private wars against individual governments. They were seen as using the weapons of the weak, driven by alienation, discrimination, occupation or poverty. They used terrorism merely because they didn’t have resources for a conventional military force. Once they obtained resources they would morph into a real army and use hybrid terrorism-non-terrorism tactics. It was a tactic, not an end unto itself.

There were some exceptions, such as the Bologna massacre in 1980 that killed 85 and was blamed on far-right extremists. The goal of the bombing was never entirely clear, except to kill people. Similarly, the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 murdered 158 but never appeared to have some complex wider goal besides revenge for the Waco siege. It was probably between 1980 and 2000 when we should have understood that the nature of terrorism was shifting from political goals in which many civilians were tragic victims, to the murder of civilians in order to simply murder them. The targets were also shifting from places where civilians sometimes died, often as a result of collateral damage, to locations where civilians were specifically and exclusively targeted. Look at the shift, from the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing that killed 241 US and 58 French forces and six civilians, to 9/11.

Even al-Qaeda ostensibly had some kind of point to its attacks. It invested years planning them. It wanted massive and symbolic attacks. The 1998 attacks on the US embassies and the USS Cole were directed at American targets, but were not merely attacks on US civilians. If al-Qaeda had wanted, it could have just sought out civilians to kill in those years. But then what happened after 9/11? We barely remember now the Ashura bombings in 2004 that murdered 178 Shiites, targeting them on a religious holiday. Then came the attacks on London, Madrid, Bali and others directed at Shiites in Iraq. This was a transition from mass symbolic killing of civilians toward genocidal murder.

Al-Qaeda’s attack in Iraq against Yazidis in 2007 in which 796 people were murdered was eclipsed by the ISIS genocide of Yazidis of Sinjar in 2014. What do you call the murder in one day of members of a single religious minority besides genocide? Think of these as being like Kristallnacht in 1938, the prelude to the Holocaust, in which 91 Jews were murdered in one night. Al-Qaeda, especially in Iraq, was laying the groundwork for ISIS and the genocide to come.

In other countries as well, groups linked to al-Qaeda or other extremist groups were taking up the new tool of terror: murder for murder’s sake. Whether it was the al-Shabaab attack at the Westgate Mall in Kenya, ISIS attacks in Paris and Belgium, or attacks in Mumbai, Bali or the Philippines, the terror had now become a form of genocide. They have no political purpose. Their only purpose is to murder, usually religious minorities or “non-believers” or whatever the enemy “other” is. This is a form of genocide because it is a deliberate killing of a large number from specific populations, especially those from a particular ethnic or national group.

Fighting the last century’s battles

Our terminology for terror is generally trapped in the previous century and addresses a different set of threats than those we face today. We talk about “militants,” “insurgents” and “blasts.” We send “thoughts and prayers.” But none of this pulls the wool from our eyes to reveal what is happening. This is generally because governments understand they have a difficult time stopping terror. After attacks in the UK in 2016, we were told that such horrors were “part and parcel” of living in any major city. This was a way to say, “Accept this and prepare for it.” It was also a way to say, “Accept the fact that now police and soldiers will be deployed on the streets, and armored vehicles will protect national institutions.” Today, you can’t go to a major art gallery in Europe without passing soldiers with machine guns and, often, armored vehicles. We are at permanent war. The Orwellian “war on terror” launched in the aftermath of 9/11 has become a permanent war on terror.

We are fed a lot of comforting words about terror and given many mottos to go by. “Terrorism has no religion,” Iran’s Javad Zarif said after the attacks in Sri Lanka. What does that mean? Would it be logical to say “lynchings have no race” after a KKK lynching? Well, lynchings do have a race, and so do the victims. The US victims in the US were almost exclusively black, and the perpetrators were white and Christian. Is that offensive to all white Christians?

The perpetrators of most terror attacks are motivated by far-right Islamist views. To the extent that there are other attacks, such as in New Zealand, they are perpetrated by far-right racists. Is that too hard to admit? Why are we so afraid to note that the systematic attacks on Shiites by Sunni extremists in Pakistan or Afghanistan are motivated by religious intolerance? Are we supposed to pretend it isn’t? Are we also supposed to pretend that the Holocaust wasn’t caused by anti-Semites in Germany and their willing collaborators across Europe?

The problem with religious intolerance, when it is honed into a buzz-saw of murderous genocidal hatred, is that it leads to mass murder. That is what happened in the Thirty Years’ War. It is estimated that some German states in that period lost as much as 25% to 50% of their populations as a result of a war fueled by religious extremism. How is that different than the attacks on Shiites in Iraq, the murder of Yazidis by ISIS or attacks on Copts in Egypt? The list goes on and on.

We are in a new Thirty Years’ War, only this time it’s global. Almost daily there are atrocities committed, from Somalia to Nigeria to the horror in Sri Lanka. Every day we wait for the next attack. Sometimes we are lucky and few people are killed. However, often the victims number in the hundreds and we simply don’t hear about it. Boko Haram and al-Shabaab have killed hundreds. An attack in Mogadishu in October 2017 killed 587 people; a 2014 Boko Haram attack at the Grand Mosque of Kano killed 120; and a 2017 ISIS attack in a Sinai mosque claimed 235 lives, to name just a few. Each victim was an individual, a person who deserved to have a full life. Instead, they were cut down by entitled, generally well-educated, middle-class terrorists. The killers were members of groups like ISIS, who assumed the supreme psychopathology of deciding who would live and who would die, in the form of extrajudicial murders. Terrorism is a form of genocide that is motivated by delusional, supremacist privilege.

We are not seeing a decrease in these attacks after almost two decades of “war on terror.” Despite US involvement in 90 countries where US Special Operations are working to advise and assist local forces, the attacks continue. And they have become worse in recent years. Despite widespread knowledge of the problem of “violent extremism,” there are many gaps in the success of fighting it. This isn’t just because terror networks exploit ungoverned spaces as in the African Sahel, or weak states, or even because they may receive succor and support from some countries. It is more complex than that. There is terrorism in Pakistan, a conservative Muslim country. Paradoxically, there are not massive attacks everywhere near the Sahel. Yet there have been mass attacks in Europe, where security services should be competent, if not expert, at stopping such assaults.

Meanwhile in Russia, horrid attacks in the Caucasus, such as the Beslan school siege in which 334 were murdered in 2004, have mostly stopped. It has been many years since the massive Moscow Theater siege in which 170 were killed. And then there are conflicts we don’t know much about, such as the knife attacks in China and the massive wave of repression currently being reported in Xinjiang.

After each attack we are told, “Don’t jump to conclusions.” But we must conclude one thing: Attacks on civilians are wrong, and attacks against places of worship are a form of genocide. It doesn’t matter who does it, whether they are “white nationalists” or “violent extremists” or “jihadists.” If you are murdering people in churches or mosques or synagogues, you are committing genocide. And we are living in an unprecedented era of such genocidal acts. No one would have believed it if you told them two decades ago that a man would film the murder of Jewish school children in Toulouse, but it happened in 2012. Or that Jews at a kosher deli would be attacked, but it happened in 2015. Or that a priest would have his throat slit, but it, too, happened in 2016.

The scale of atrocities is so large that it numbs us: victims beheaded and burned to death by ISIS, attacks on Buddhist monks in southern Thailand, and the unspeakable murder of children. The places, too, are becoming nearly too numerous to name: Camp Speicher, Sinjar, Mogadishu, Sousse, Ouagadougou, Kabul, Colombo, Baghdad, Paris, London, Madrid, Orlando, San Bernardino, Boston, Lahore, Tanta, Manchester, Stockholm, Berlin, El-Arish, Istanbul, Quetta, Amman, Dhaka, Mumbai, Nairobi, Grand-Bassam, Bacha Khan, Jakarta, Diyarbakir and so many more.

One day a monument – like Yad Vashem is for the Holocaust – will stand to all the victims of terror and all the places these attacks have occurred. And future generations will remember that we faced genocide. “Thoughts and prayers” and “death by extremism” will not be our Orwellian epitaph. We will stop this eventually.