There is No Military Solution to Extremism and Terrorism

Photo credits: cyclonfingers Flickr stream

Days after the terrorist attacks in Brussels, and almost fifteen years after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, reality is setting in for Europeans. Europe is under attack. And it is not alone. Terrorists are striking in Turkey and Nigeria on a regular basis. And the US has seen its fair share of attacks, though less dramatic than the ones in Brussels, Paris, and Istanbul.

So how is extremism and terrorism going to be stopped? Listening to politicians in the EU and the US, I get an eerie feeling that we are going to repeat the same mistakes we have made over the past 15 years. Have we learned anything? Have we not learned that there is no military solution to terrorism?

I remember getting woken up by my college roommate in New Jersey on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. He barged into my room. “Dude, America is under attack,” he said.

We sat in the living room in our boxer shorts watching the carnage. We ran to the windows when a row of F-16s flying low to the ground out of Fort Dix broke the sound barrier, shaking the windows in our apartment.

I sat down that afternoon and wrote about what I feared was to come. I was a history major so I’d read up on our country’s reactions to acts of war. Throughout its history, the United States had tended to respond to acts of war with declarations of war.

I wrote about how the machinery of war would move into action, about the billions we would spend and the lives we would put at risk hunting and tracking down the “bad guys,” about how Muslims, or anyone looking like one, would be targeted on the streets of our cities. I worried that civil liberties would be eroded.

I cringed when George W. Bush stood on the rubble of the World Trade Center and said, “I can hear you, the rest of the world can hear you, and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”

I was a rookie reporter covering the New York Yankees on Oct. 7, 2001 when the game was delayed because George W. Bush was about to declare war on Afghanistan. I watched the speech on the big screen together with 57,000 silent spectators. George W. Bush said, “We will not waver; we will not tire; we will not falter; and we will not fail. Peace and freedom will prevail. Thank you. May God continue to bless America.”

The crowd at the old Yankee Stadium in the Bronx broke out in a chant of “USA” that lasted for minutes. The stadium shook with patriotism and anger. I looked around to the other reporters in the press box to see if they were also in shock. This chant of “USA” didn’t bring me hope for a peaceful future. To me it felt like a Nazi Germany rally. I felt sick.

I know many others reacted differently. Many people rallied together, they enlisted into the military, and they supported the war in Afghanistan, and then the war in Iraq, and the entire War on Terrorism. But for me, it was obvious from the beginning that any military intervention would fail.

I remember walking into work one day, and my boss showed me a New York Times article about how we won the war in Afghanistan and how girls were starting to go to school now. He was elated; I couldn’t believe his naivety.

Does anyone argue today that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were worth it?

Over 6,800 US troops died in those two wars. More than 150,000 civilians have been killed by direct violence in those countries since the invasions.

Harvard economist Linda Bilmes calculated that the true economic cost of the wars, including long-term medical care and disability compensation for service members, cost taxpayers between $4 trillion and $6 trillion.

And for what? After all of the lives lost and money spent, terrorism is more of a threat today than it was in 2001. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are the root causes of the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing to Europe. The war in Iraq especially knocked over a hornet’s nest. The Middle East is in disarray with wars in Syria and Yemen, the Islamic State rules over a vast part of Syria and Iraq, relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia are extremely tense, and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is dead.

Meanwhile, radicalized Islamic terrorists in Europe, many of them native-born, are blowing themselves up and shooting into crowds.

Yet, time and again, we hear politicians saying we need to close the borders, increase surveillance, go to war, root them out and defeat the evil. I have yet to hear a good explanation of how that can be done successfully. On the contrary, all of these actions may actually fuel the hatred terrorists need to convince new recruits to join their cause. Is it not clear, after these last 15 years of folly, that war is not the answer?

Einstein said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Now it is enough – we need to stop doing the same things. Bombs will not destroy the Islamic State. You cannot bomb extremism because it does not stop the problem. It just spreads somewhere else.

One of the key solutions in the short-term is to create a real coalition for diplomacy involving the Middle East. Another solution is to support institutions and popular movements in Iraq, Syria and other countries who are working to improve human rights. And if the United States and other countries cannot figure out how to be a productive entity in the Middle East, then they should leave it alone.

In the long-term, we need to prevent extremism, which grows out of political, economic and social conditions. If those conditions are not changed, neither extremism nor terrorism will be stopped.

Imagine what could be done with $4 trillion. Why is it so easy to invest in a war, but not in books? Call me naïve, but what if we spent hundreds of billions supporting education around the world? What if we spent hundreds of billions on alleviating poverty, spreading human rights and civil liberties, and integrating religious and ethnic minorities into our societies by giving them the same rights to education and work?

Have you noticed how people react today when you talk to them about terrorism? They just throw up their hands in despair. That is because governments around the globe, much like a doctor who treats the symptoms of a disease rather than its cause, continue to support the war on terrorism. The war on terrorism has failed for the same reason the war on drugs has failed. It does not get to the root of the problem.

Still, after the terrorist attack in Brussels on Tuesday, the French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said the continent was “at war.”

Unless world leaders want their grandchildren to live with the same terrorist threat we face today, they are going to have to give up on the war and come up with a better approach to fighting terrorism and stopping extremism.

If they do not, the terror will continue. And in Europe, politicians may see themselves out of work, replaced by extreme right-wing parties who are making gains on the continent, partly due to the EU’s failure to stop extremism and terrorism.

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