Paris attacks: can ‘the West’ survive, let alone win?

EPA/Malte Christians

In the aftermath of the co-ordinated terrorist attacks on Paris the urge to do something in response is understandably overwhelming. For want of something better to do when faced with an outrage of this sort, the default option is to bomb Syria.

Even though we cannot be certain at this stage that Islamic State was, in fact, the architect of these events, its all-too-predictable claim of responsibility provides the justification for the actions of the besieged French government.

But once the urge to lash out at someone or something has been briefly sated, what then? The longer-term strategies and solutions – if, indeed, there are any – will be much more difficult to implement and uncertain in their impact. They may also hand a victory of sorts to the forces of medieval barbarism that are currently assaulting the West and its values.

France may have played a prominent role in the war on terror in the Middle East, but a more attractive target than Paris for the terrorists to attack cannot be imagined at any time. Paris is, after all, the place more than any other that has forged the values and principles that define “the West”. Political pluralism, female emancipation, freedom of thought, tolerance, humanism, and especially secularism are the collective bête noir of fundamentalists everywhere.

Paradoxically – even tragically – combating ideologically inspired terrorism will involve actually winding back many of the principles that were so hard won and that have become so taken for granted. The understandable preoccupation with domestic security will inevitably further erode individual freedom and the very quality of life that makes Paris and western Europe more generally such an attractive place.

Clearly not all – perhaps even most – of the millions of people who currently want to migrate to Europe are primarily motivated by such values. The understandable desire to escape conflict and have a more prosperous and secure life are likely uppermost in the minds of the would-be new Europeans. This raises the uncomfortable question of what it actually means to be a European and whether the new arrivals will actually cherish Western values.

It is equally evident that many won’t, and not just the relative handful of committed extremists who are prepared to kill and be killed in pursuit of their very different ideas about how the world should be ordered. The question many European governments must wrestle with is whether it is possible to integrate the very large numbers of new arrivals who threaten to overwhelm Europe’s social services in the short term, and change its very character in the long term.

Compared to deciding to bomb Syria yet again, the problems raised by such long-term, intergenerational challenges look intractable. Social integration – if it occurs – is a process that is likely to unfold over decades. Even then social exclusion and ghettoisation means that “homegrown terrorists” are another depressingly predictable by product of good intentions and noble gestures.

Rather tellingly, even Sweden is belatedly coming to realise that its normatively admirable policies are simply unsustainable. Not only are the sheer numbers of would-be immigrants too large to cope with, but there is an inevitable backlash from locals who find their lives and their expectations being transformed in ways that they may not like, and which they have little ability to influence. It is simply patronising and elitist to condemn people for being unhappy about changes they had no part in bringing about.

Whatever we – the privileged atypical readers of outlets like The Conversation - may think about the moral imperative of accepting large flows of immigrants from other countries, the reality is that the impacts of such policies are likely to be felt primarily by people who feel disempowered and disengaged at the best of times.

These are clearly not the best of times. The rise of right-wing politics across much of Europe and the fraying of the already enfeebled bonds of inter-state solidarity that underpin the European project are the rather predictable consequence of the EU’s multiple, interlocking and mutually reinforcing crises.

This is what makes the immediate violence and horror of the Paris attacks so potentially toxic. Europe is already reeling from social and economic problems that resist easy solutions and which are already stretching the notion of a common European project to breaking point.

As borders are re-erected and national interests take precedence over collective ones, it is hard to see the Europe that we know – and, indeed, love – surviving in quite the same way.

We may have to come terms with the idea that there may never be a solution to the threat posed by the corrosive cancer of terrorism. Even if there is one, it is not likely to be found in endlessly bombing Syria. As Malcolm Turnbull rightly said, Syrians themselves will have to be part of the solution if there is one.

In such circumstances, we really will have to begin thinking about very different long-term strategies that might once have seemed unfeasible or Utopian.

Whatever “the West” is doing at the moment plainly isn’t working.