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New Wave Terrorism: The Syrian Nightmare and Moral Confusion

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By Greg Austin

Brace yourselves. There is a new wave of terrorism coming to the G20 countries. It will have many roots, but a principal one, regardless of the ideological cause, will be the cynicism of the great powers toward the Syria genocide.

A secondary source will be the impunity with which the Islamic State has continued to operate. And a third source will be the moral confusion in the West about the role of the state in upholding a defensible view of what constitutes right and wrong.

In summary, extremists of all persuasions with a bent to violence will come at us in a new wave because our governments collectively have lost their moral compass and our enemies’ sense it.

Just ask Vladimir Putin. He senses it and is going for the jugular, even though his strategy is death by a thousand cuts rather than full frontal assault.

And Putin is part of the problem. Our inability to deal convincingly with his annexation of Crimea has undermined the moral authority of the West.

He has exploited this by funding the extreme right National Front in France, enabling it to lead in the formation of an international coalition of like-minded parties.

The West’s moral confusion extends to the collective legitimation of these extremist parties by pretending that hate-based politics is acceptable as long as they don’t (now) support violence.

Terrorists are for the most part not morally sophisticated, but they all see themselves as driven by a simplified concept of morality.

The wave of terrorism we saw in the United States and Europe in the 1960s and 1970s (Black Panthers, Symbionese Liberation Army, Baader Meinhof, Red Brigades, Japanese Red Army, Irish Republican Army and the Basque ETA, among others) was indeed a wave.

While each group had its separate national or internationalist inspiration and motivation, they were all emboldened by each other’s successes.

Their appeal was bolstered by a shared belief that the international system was not only highly corrupt and immoral but highly vulnerable and possibly impotent.

One symbol among many of the unifying moral outrage of diverse terrorist groups decades ago was the U.S. bombing of North Vietnam (Operation Rolling Thunder that lasted for three years from 1965 to 1968) and then in 1970 the bombing of Cambodia.

The use of defoliants like Agent Orange in Vietnam also contributed to the image among extremists that we were indeed living in “Apocalypse Now.”

Moral paralysis

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This week, the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, and the President of the Red Cross, Peter Maurer, said that “In the face of blatant inhumanity, the world has responded with disturbing paralysis.”

Their statement has a range of meanings and demands response at many levels. But on one level, it should be taken as a warning sign. We have again entered the moral landscape of the mid-1960s in terms of the perceived moral paralysis of most governments in power.

This situation will foster a new wave of terrorism akin to what we saw four to five decades ago.

Of course, we need to bear in mind that terrorism has not been quiescent between 1975 and 2015. In fact, we have been mobilized around a war on terror since September 11, 2001.

Yet, the empirical evidence is that the terrorists are winning. Many enjoy impunity for their actions, especially Boko Haram. And the West has too often resorted to bombing as a solution, or supported rotten regimes like that of dictator Al Sisi in Egypt.

Now, we are about to deliver the shameless coup de grace to the combined hopes of half the world, by falling behind Putin’s effort to save the Syrian Baath Party regime, even if Bashar Al Assad is forced aside.

Extremism on the rise

After all the ordnance that has been dropped by the United States, its allies and by Russia after Afghanistan (1979-1988) and Grozny (1999) — the hapless Muslim countries — and the persistent violence in Palestine on a lower scale, the terrorists are still winning more than ever before. They are certainly more emboldened.

What we must now expect is that extremists of all persuasion will begin to believe they have a new license to kill.

Arguably, the new wave has already started with wide-spread “lone wolf” violence in the United States and Europe by young people whom we don’t recognize as terrorists because they are not part of a network or movement.

Explanations of mass shootings in the United States vary between blaming it on gun laws or on mental illness. But the reality may be different. Perhaps it is a new form of decentralized terrorism. To complete the global picture, the last few years have also seen a surge of terrorist actions in China.

As the new wave terrorism builds, acts of generosity and humanitarianism by many people and their governments will not matter as long as the moral paralysis described by Ban and Maurer remains in place.

Morality is in the eye of the beholder. There will always be potential terrorists no matter what leading governments of the world do.

But our moral confusion, ethical paralysis and seemingly perpetual resort to bombing are all a source of increased danger to us.