A Meditation on Terrorism

Imagine you’re at one of those old-fashioned, bury-the-hatchet arranged weddings, where the son of your house is marrying the daughter of the enemy house. Picture it in as much detail as you can. The event has all the trappings of joy: A feast is cooking, a band is tuning up. And there’s some real joy in the air too: The long struggle might be over, and everybody present might be a survivor.

But there’s also tension. A few weeks ago, you were trying to kill these people, and they were trying to kill you. Some of them would still like to.

In particular, there’s one guy in the enemy camp who isn’t happy. He doesn’t like the peace, he didn’t like the terms of the treaty, and the war gave his life a sense of meaning that he doesn’t know how to replace.

As the reception starts, with the music and dancing and food, he looks around disgustedly. All of his friends, people he can remember swearing eternal vengeance with, are getting chummy with your friends. There’s got to be a way to put a stop to this.

That’s when he starts trying to pick a fight with you. First with jibes, then with open insults, and finally with shoves and even blows. You know what he’s up to: He’s hoping that once the fight breaks out, everyone will have to pick a side. All the old quarrels will be remembered and the war will start all over again.

What do you do? At first you tried to just ignore him and avoid him, but it’s really hard not to fight somebody who is determined to fight you. You can’t just let him kill you. But you also don’t want to let him write you into his script.

So your choice is not as simple as just fight or don’t fight. You can’t really avoid the fight, but your goal is that when the fight comes, it should stay between you and him, and not turn into a general brawl.

With that in mind, all your words and actions have to be chosen for the benefit of the larger audience. You’re a warrior. So if it were just between the two of you, you would answer insult for insult, and if he hit you, you would hit back harder. That’s how a warrior keeps a fight short: Let the other guy know that the price will higher than he wants to pay.

But that won’t work here, because he’s playing a different game. If he winds up bloodied, but the war restarts, he wins.

So yes, when he insults you, you answer him. But you have to focus on him personally, and not let your anger run away with you. Above all, you don’t want to shout out insults to his whole clan. This isn’t the kind of treachery you always expected from his side; this is just one guy being a jerk. And when you hit back, your blows have to be measured, so that it is clear to everyone which one of you keeps escalating. And you want to be sure you know what you’re hitting, so you can’t blindly throw things that might hit unintended targets.

Your goal is to survive, but your larger goal is for the peace between your peoples to survive. That makes everything more complicated.

I hope my analogy isn’t too hard to interpret: The West and Islam have a violent history that goes back to the Crusades and the fall of Constantinople and the Ottoman threat to Europe. ISIS wants that Clash of Civilizations back, and its leaders want to lead not just a gang of zealots in the desert, but a unified caliphate encompassing the world’s billion-plus Muslims.

The worst thing that could happen to ISIS would be for Muslim nations to assimilate into the world order, for parliamentary democracy to succeed in places like Turkey and Tunisia, and for Muslims in Western countries to be accepted and to think of themselves as French Muslims or Muslim Americans.

Attacks like the ones in Paris are intended to put a stop to all that. Militarily, they don’t amount to much. The civilian deaths are individually tragic, and collectively they strike at the pride of a great nation. But ISIS is not a existential threat to France. France cannot be defeated by attacking concert halls.

The same thing is true of ISIS’ affronts to America. The United States cannot be defeated by chopping off the heads of journalists or tourists. The point of these actions isn’t to destroy us, it’s to rile us up, in hopes that we will hit back harder, collaterally targeting a bunch of otherwise peaceful Muslims in the process.

ISIS needs the wedding reception to turn into a brawl.

The worst thing we could do in this situation is to play the role the terrorists have assigned us. Those politicians and pundits who either imply or proclaim openly that we are at war with Islam, and treat would-be Caliph al-Baghdadi as an existential threat to the West — they are doing al-Baghdadi’s work for him, and granting him a status he could never earn on his own.

That said, it’s too simplistic to jump to the other extreme and say, “Just ignore them.” If this attack doesn’t rile up the West, they’ll start planning a bigger one. It’s not a turn-the-other-cheek situation.

The important thing to remember, though, is which audience we should have in mind when we choose our words and actions. It’s tempting to narrow your focus and just see the person who’s goading you. But the real audience to our response isn’t al-Baghdadi or the jihadis who have already joined his cause, it’s all the world’s Muslims — especially the teen-agers who are trying to decide whether or not their dream of making it in the West or finding a place in the world for their country is really feasible.

If you’re a young Muslim in Paris or London or Berlin or Los Angeles, is there a place for you here? Or are the Christians and Jews and atheists just suckering you into betraying your heritage? If you’re in Cairo or Amman or Mosul, is a future of democracy and human rights worth your devotion? Or is your only hope for justice and self-respect out in the Syrian desert?

When you realize that the real battle is being decided inside the minds of these young people, it changes you. You’re not so quick to declare war on Islam, or to look at every local Muslim or refugee at the border as a potential terrorist. You realize that Islam is a word worth contesting, so you don’t give it away by tagging your enemy as “radical Islam”. (If you’re a Christian, think about how the phrase radical Christianity strikes you. Doesn’t it sound like something you should join? If somebody announces that he’s fighting against the radical Christians, is he your ally or your enemy? Why should a young Muslim feel differently?) And no matter how many terrorists you think are in some region, you don’t just kill everybody and let God sort it out.

Yes, once some group starts killing our civilians, we need to fight them. We need to take them down. But we also need to keep the fight as small as possible. The Clash of Civilizations is part of their plan. It shouldn’t be part of ours.

If you want to see this point of view worked out in more detail, you should read my 2014 post “Terrorist Strategy 101: a review“.

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  • David Mills  On November 16, 2015 at 10:14 am



  • frequent_Reader  On November 16, 2015 at 10:32 am

    very insightful analogy

  • mrcowles  On November 16, 2015 at 10:42 am

    Reblogged this on Mr. Cowles and commented:
    Drastic over-reaction is exactly what they want . . .

  • JELC  On November 16, 2015 at 12:14 pm

    Hi Doug,

    Normally, I think you’re spot on, and I think you’re exactly right about what ISIS wants from western countries, but I don’t think your analogy holds up entirely. There’s one big reason for that: ISIS kills a hell of a lot more Muslims in the Middle East than it does anybody in western countries.

    So although you’re right about how the west has to respond, and you’re right about where the battle is really taking place, what your analogy doesn’t really capture is that the west has not been singularly provoked. If we come out swinging, and generalizing about Muslims and Islam as a whole, that’s not because ISIS is picking on us in particular. Really, it’s because our bubble of empathy doesn’t extend to all of ISIS’ other victims.

    • weeklysift  On November 16, 2015 at 2:11 pm

      Well observed. But to the extent that we’re talking about Sunni terrorists hitting Shia targets (which I know is not all of all Muslim targets, but does cover a significant number), the same logic applies. Sunni and Shia had been living together too comfortably in Iraq, and events like the al-Askari Mosque bombing in 2006 were intended to drive them apart.

      • JELC  On November 16, 2015 at 3:18 pm

        That makes sense. There is a lot of “let’s you and him fight” in the way terrorists go about things. They benefit from conflicts, basically regardless of who is involved in the conflict. So if they can push anyone to behave aggressively towards anyone else they’re happy.

  • Merlin Douglas Larsen  On November 16, 2015 at 7:49 pm

    “Insightful”, not much. ISIS Caliphate is not a guest at a wedding. It is a murdering gang. To reduce ISIS to one disgruntled “wedding guest” is simplistic and distorted.

    If said-loudmouth tried to pick a fight at a real effort by both sides to create peace, he’d be muzzled by his own people. They wouldn’t stand around waiting to see what “you” would do in response to his physical browbeating.

    And, sir, the crusades did not start this, the c. 400 years of expanding jihad came rather before the crusades, which were in response to that expanding threat.

  • Dangerous Meredith  On November 16, 2015 at 9:25 pm

    Thank you for this. I think this is one of the wisest responses to this tragedy I have read. Can I also recommend Waleed Aly’s response – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XXUZjyZVj6s

  • russellgrainger  On November 16, 2015 at 10:56 pm

    Reblogged this on penfoldsblog and commented:
    Great article by Doug Muder. I’d like to think everyone could read this.

  • Dane  On November 17, 2015 at 8:06 am

    A small nitpick; the violent pas de deux between Islam and the West goes back further than the crusades. To quote Chesterton: “The critic of the Crusade talks as if it had sought out some inoffensive tribe or temple in the interior of Thibet, which was never discovered until it was invaded. They seem entirely to forget that long before the Crusaders had dreamed of riding to Jerusalem, the Moslems had almost ridden into Paris. They seem to forget that if the Crusaders nearly conquered Palestine, it was but a return upon the Moslems who had nearly conquered Europe.”

    Please don’t think I’m claiming “they started it.” It doesn’t matter who started it, it only matters what happens next, and on that Doug is 1,000% correct. I just like to point out history goes back a little further. FD Chief over on the Graphic Firing Table Blogspot has a fascinating write-up of the Battle of Tours for anyone interested (short version, it was more like Martel blunted a raid and 1,300 years of Western propaganda turned it into some great decisive victory).

    • weeklysift  On November 18, 2015 at 8:12 am

      I tried not to make my list one-sided, mentioning also the fall of Constantinople and the Ottoman threat. But you’re right, I could have gone back to 732.


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