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First, let’s put the horrors of Paris in some perspective. This is not to diminish the barbarous and evil nature of the attacks. It’s to say, while we are all freaking out here, we should also remember that strength is on the side of the free and humanity-loving world. That’s us and our allies, which, in this case, is – thankfully – basically the entire world.
My kid asked me, "What if ISIS wins?" I said, "ISIS isn’t going to win." ISIS isn’t Nazi Germany. It’s not part of the AXIS powers. It has no allies. It’s hated as much by Muslim-controlled countries as it is by non-Muslim-controlled countries. And it hates them perhaps even more so than it hates us.
It controls some territory, yes, but it doesn’t have a Luftwaffe or any real military; it doesn’t have an industrial machine or the support of any of the populace it’s trying to rule and consistently terrorizes. Because it controls territory, unlike Al-Qaida, it gives us a concrete target and goal versus a shadowy one: take back that territory.
It doesn’t have any real organized government. I can’t even name the ruler of ISIS; the group has no rallying around figure for terrorists like bin Laden was. We’ve been taking out their leaders – most recently, Jihadi John – and some of the resistance groups have been getting back pieces of territory recently. The attacks in Paris were horrific but just under about 1/30th the casualties of 9/11 and far less sophisticated (guys shooting out of cars, etc.).
We need to remember these things. ISIS wants these attacks to be a PR coup that makes it look stronger and more threatening than it is. ISIS wants to look like it’s on par with the rest of the world. It’s not.
The attacks were horrible, though, and ISIS must be taken seriously. This is a given. We should pray for and cry with Paris. But all of the major powers of the world – all of them – are on our side and concur in hating ISIS and wanting them gone. Their ideology is repugnant to people of all sides of the political spectrum.
Putting this all together, it’s actually rather hard to see why the powers of the world – the militaries of America, Russia, France, Britain, Jordan, Israel, etc. – haven’t excised this threat yet, haven’t dug it out by the roots and eliminated it. It seems obvious that they’ve held back because of an (understandable) distaste for boots on the ground and perhaps clashing viewpoints over things like the rule of Assad.
It’s time the global powers united to do the hard work on this, which will probably entail boots on the ground – and they can’t just be American boots – before the stuff above no longer proves true. Enough! The French president said the current attacks were an "act of war," but ISIS declared war on us and civilization when it started beheading our citizens on TV and massacring and executing the good people of Iraq and Syria. We were already at war. The world can tolerate this no longer. It shouldn’t have been tolerating gay people being thrown off roofs and pilots being burned alive and Christians being massacred and American journalists being beheaded, either.
Now, we just need to have the fortitude to get the job done before the horror revisits our shores. Forget Assad for the moment. He’s the lesser of the evils. Create a global force and take back this territory. Half-steps aren’t going to work.
That’s lesson one.
Here are the other four lessons that we can learn from Paris – and I am sure there will be more as the details of the attacks continue to unfold.
1. We don't have the luxury anymore of our currently petty, reductive politics.
Were we really all just debating whether a so-so television personality was a dog or an aging supermodel was only a "9"? Are we really obsessing about what a presidential candidate said in a book that he did when he was a kid? Do we really care that moderators asked some unfair questions of people who want to lead the Free World? Does it really matter THAT MUCH what a presidential candidate did with her emails (and yes it matters – but does it matter THAT much?).
Well, we don’t have the luxury for this kind of political debate or obsession anymore.
Remember how, right before 9/11, the media was obsessing about Gary Condit, a congressman who ended up not even being the murderer of an intern? That debate shut down right after terrorists flew planes into our buildings. Suddenly, we refocused on the debate that matters.
We need to do that now, again, too. We need to start focusing only on substantive, serious policy questions, even if they don’t drive ratings. The silly stuff? We all need to collectively knock it off.
2. We have more in common than not.
This past year has been all about division. Different ethnic groups pitted against each other. Different political parties pitted against each other. People saying that American government is the problem that America faces. People trashing Obama, as if he can do nothing right and rushing to cast blame. People trashing this or that Republican, as if they can do nothing right, either. University of Missouri and Ferguson highlighted our differences. The presidential race has too.
I am not arguing that structural inequities don’t exist in American society, and I think racism, whenever it rears its ugly head –and sometimes it does – is repugnant and clearly needs condemning. However, I also don’t think that most university administrators and most American cops are the most pressing problems facing America today. I am not arguing that we shouldn’t air political differences in a presidential campaign, either. However, we should avoid the cheap shots and the ad hominem attacks. It’s less important "who was to blame" for ISIS growing stronger than what we do next. I didn’t vote for him, but I will say it: I stand by my American president right now. The enemy of America is not the enemy within.
When you boil it down, we should also remember that we have more in common than we do not. We are part of an American experiment that, although not always realized and sometimes faulty, stands for things that are the polar opposite of those things that ISIS stands for. Try protesting in territory controlled by ISIS. Try burning their flag. Try exercising freedom of speech. Try being gay, an outspoken woman, a Christian or an atheist there. Try saying something politically controversial or something that offends someone else. While we obsess about microaggressions – some real, some not – they’re throwing people off roofs.
We should respect our differences and people’s concerns about how our society could be better for all, but we have more in common than we don’t. Maybe we should remember that now and then.
This is true on the global stage too. Remember a few years back, when it was popular to make fun of France and French fries were being renamed freedom fries? How soon we sometimes forget the long, rich history between France and the United States, from the Marquis de Lafayette to the fact that the Statue of Liberty was the brainchild of a French sculptor.
We have more in common than we do not.
I’m getting sort of sick, also, of certain candidates saying we’re a wrecked country, that we’re not great anymore, and that we’ve gone to hell in a handbasket.
That’s not true. We’re not perfect, but we stand firmly on the side of liberty and freedom not enjoyed in many countries throughout the world. I feel like I won the Powerball of life by being born here, especially as an outspoken woman.
3. Border security is about terrorism too.
Border security doesn’t have to be a political debate. And people aren’t inherently racist because they want a coherent immigration system. In all of the silly side debates about Mexican migrants – and they are silly because Mexican laborers are not the problem America faces – people have forgotten that terrorists come over the border sometimes too.
We should refocus this debate. It shouldn’t be controversial to want stronger border security and a more coherent immigration system. What we do with the people already here is another debate and shouldn’t dominate the debate because it’s not most pressing. To me, it’s unworkable and inhumane to round up 11 million people and toss them out of the country. Nor does it focus on the correct priorities.
The border security debate should be about terrorism, largely.
Similarly, the refugee crisis is not only about humanitarianism. It can’t be with news that two of the terrorists might have been hiding as Syrian refugees, who entered through Greece.
4. There was wisdom in the concept of preemptive war, but we need to do it right.
It’s not popular to say this anymore, but George W. Bush had a point with his preemptive war doctrine. That doesn’t mean he made all of the right calls. I think, knowing what we know now, that we shouldn’t have gone into Iraq. Saddam wasn’t responsible for 9/11, and nation-building is a tough and perilous venture (although the conflict there did draw Al-Qaida there instead of here for a time). Sometimes secular strongmen – Saddam, Assad – while evil in their own ways, hold together otherwise fractious tribes and prevent the intrusion of theocratic evils. Maybe we should remember that lesson, too, before we put taking out Assad over taking out ISIS.
However, I don’t see much evidence that Obama’s "withdraw and inversion" doctrine is much better. The Bush doctrine was designed to put terrorists on the run, to take the fight to them overseas before they could come here, to disorganize, demolish, and disorient them wherever they lay. He also invaded Afghanistan, which was directly harboring bin Laden. Maybe we need a mix of the two perspectives?
Maybe we need to stay on the offense, but we need to make sure this time that we preempt the right things. We need to not react as emotionally as we did post-Sept. 11 because we now know these truths: War is ugly and hard. However, holding back doesn’t get the job done either. Take the fight to them, but do it smarter this time.
Jessica McBride spent a decade as an investigative, crime, and general assignment reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and is a former City Hall reporter/current columnist for the Waukesha Freeman.
She is the recipient of national and state journalism awards in topics that include short feature writing, investigative journalism, spot news reporting, magazine writing, blogging, web journalism, column writing, and background/interpretive reporting. McBride, a senior journalism lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has taught journalism courses since 2000.
Her journalistic and opinion work has also appeared in broadcast, newspaper, magazine, and online formats, including Patch.com, Milwaukee Magazine, Wisconsin Public Radio, El Conquistador Latino newspaper, Investigation Discovery Channel, History Channel, WMCS 1290 AM, WTMJ 620 AM, and Wispolitics.com. She is the recipient of the 2008 UWM Alumni Foundation teaching excellence award for academic staff for her work in media diversity and innovative media formats and is the co-founder of Media Milwaukee.com, the UWM journalism department's award-winning online news site. McBride comes from a long-time Milwaukee journalism family. Her grandparents, Raymond and Marian McBride, were reporters for the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel.
Her opinions reflect her own not the institution where she works.