Recently, a huge terrorist attack happened in France (see Wikipedia). At least 129 people died and 352 people were injured. The attack happened on the evening of 13 November 2015. 6 mass shootings and 3 suicide bombings happened.
What happened and the reactions I've seen so far make this the European / French equivalent of September 11 attacks. A lot of people died or were injured, one of the most important cities were affected, politicians say we are in war, on Facebook people show condolence.
Questions we need to ask
- The Terrorists: Who were the terrorists? What was their story? How did they become terrorists?
- The Weapons: Where did they get the weapons from? Can we prevent that?
- Fast reactions: How could the police react that fast?
- Future: How do we want to deal with such attacks?
ISIS claims they were responsible for the attacks. We could stop to think here and many certainly will. It is a terrorist organization and that is what terrorists do. The people were religiously motivated lunatics, so we don't need to understand them. Right?
People are complicated. They don't always act consistently. Their environment is critical to form who they are. If you grew up in an environment where you didn't have reliable access to clean water, food, medical services, education, work, and a perspective on a good live in general, you would certainly be somebody else.
Don't get me wrong here. I don't want to talk it little. Everybody has a choice what he can do in his live. What terrorists do is cruel. But just like after September 11, I am pretty sure we (France, Germany, Europe) will spend a lot of time and money in reaction to the attacks. One reaction we will certainly get is demands for more spendings / actions in military and surveillance. Demands for closing borders. What I want to say is that we are trying to intervene in a too late step of the "terror process". People are not born terrorists. They become terrorists during their lives. We should not prevent terrorists from entering our countries, from blowing up what is important for us. We should prevent people from becoming terrorists.
Now you might say that is easier said than done. But a very first step would be getting a detailed view of the terrorists lives. I don't mean the preparation, but their complete live. Their environment. And then change that.
My assumption is that we could completely prevent generations of terrorists from being born when we "simply" make the world better.
According to the Paris prosecutor, the attackers wearing suicide vests used TATP as an explosive. This is easy to make from things of everyday live. So we can't prevent it from being made and used by suicide bombers, except if we massively sacrifice privacy. I'm talking here about cameras in your bedroom kind of surveillance. "Only" the US way of surveillance will not change anything.
However, I've also read that the terrorists used AK-47 rifles. They cannot be build by yourself, so we should find out where they came from. One only the concrete path, but in general.
It is less than two days after the attacks, and we already know which type of explosive the bombing vests were made of, some people were put into arrest, and we are sure that ISIS is responsible. This is astonishing. It feels as if the police was doing an extraordinary good job here. I wonder if it would be that fast outside of Paris.
At the same time, it feels too fast. When we get news that fast, we (unconciously) will expect such fast reactions with other attacks. This might not be possible and people might - too fast - ask for political changes. I just want to point out that such fast reactions and the quick, not very well investigated articles we get today (like this one... but I'm not a journalist) are not always good for us.
I see three ways we, as a society, can react to terrorist attacks in general:
- No reaction
- Surveillance and military
- Development aid
I was positively surprised how the people from Norway reacted to the 2011 Norway attacks. They didn't start new surveillance programs. They didn't increase their military spendings.
The Norwegians showed they are strong. They showed the world that they are united. They showed that they will not let terrorist attacks change the way they live their lives.
Surveillance and military
When something happens, people want politicians to show they improve the situation. They want revenge. They want others to share their pain. They feel insecure and want to feel strong and secure again.
This is a reason why spending more money in surveillance and military is a very understandable, logical reaction.
But be clear what you're doing when you ask for more spendings in military and surveillance. Be clear what you sacrifice when you want to expand the power of intelligence services. Think about how you let terrorists change your live. Which other dangers you might put your society into.
I am a strong opponent of surveillance and also (not that much, but still) an opponent of military. One reason is that we are playing a stupid game (see A Waste of Money and Time, a security expert). We see what terrorists did, like an attack with airplanes, and we as a society spend lots and lots of effort to prevent that. We accept being treated like criminals, hundred thousands of passengers, just to get a slight chance to catch a terrorist. The terrorists know that, so they can take the train and do exactly the same. We pick our defenses and they do something different.
I don't want to play such a stupid game.
One way around is intelligence. But the bad thing is, that it doesn't make sense to use a little bit of intelligence. You have to go the full, Orwellian way to have a good chance of it being effective. Here is what I could think of:
- Make money flows transparent: Don't use cash any more. Only digital money which gets tracked by government agencies. Track who buys what in which quantities. Make shops, no matter how small, connect the transactions with goods you bought. This has to include everything, as you can use quite a lot of different things to build bombs.
- Track everybody: With smartphones you can make detailed movement profiles. Even if you're not on Facebook, you can build a social graph. Who talked to whom, who has how much contact to whom. Who is influential, who isn't.
- Get rid of privacy: We have surveillance equipment everywhere. Private smartphones, tablets, laptops usually have cameras and microphones. Most people use these devices to communicate. These devices, combined with traffic cameras, private shop / bank cameras give pretty detailed images of what is going on. An automatic computer system like Microsoft's Domain Awareness System could constantly take this information and react within seconds.
But we have to be aware of what we sacrifice when we are doing it. The surveillance systems can be hacked. They can be misused. The automatic algorithms can - just like humans - make mistakes.
Imagine the world we would live in if the Gestapo or the Stasi had access to this kind of technology. Imagine how people would act differently when they know everything they did was recorded and could be hold against them later.
On the positive side: This could decrease "normal" crime, too.
Just as I began to write before, I would prefer if we spend more money on development aid. I am pretty sure there are many (potential) terrorists, which would not even consider that if they were in a better situation. We could massively improve the situation of the live of millions of people. Even if it would not work against terrorism, we would still do something inherently good. We would help the people. If we honestly want to improve their situation, if we don't use military but humanitarian aid, people will recognize this. People will have something good in their minds when they thought of us (see "Brot statt Bomben"). A positive side-effect would be that it would stop coming more refugees to Europe.
Of course, just throwing money at the problem will not solve anything. We need to check if the money actually gets to the people. We need to check if it improves their lives. We need them to get in a situation where they are able to choose what to do with their lives. Not from equally bad situations, but giving people the possibility to make their live become good.
We need to understand the problems of those countries. We have to work with the people there, not work for them. We have to support, not to lead.
There are certainly a lot of organizations like Engineers Without Borders and Doctors Without Borders which have a very good idea what has to be done in a short-term perspective to improve the lives of many people. However, we should plan for a long-term perspective. We should get in contact with refugees who are willing to get back if the situation was better and try to figure out what they need to improve the situation.
And we should finally stand to our word and reach the Millennium Development Goals I can't find the source, but the costs for reaching the MDGs were lower than I expected. Especially access to clean water significantly lower than 20 Billion US-Dollar, if I remember it correctly. The GDP of Europe is about 18,527,116 Million US-Dollar. That means we would have to spend about 0.1 % of our GDP for this goal. Now think of the money that was spend in the European debt crisis. It is hard to put numbers on here, but it was much more than 18 Billion US-Dollar.
A fellow student recently pointed out that there were also 2015 Beirut bombings. I didn't even see that in the news. A lot of people die preventable deaths due to the lack of access to clean water, sanitation and food. And we don't even talk about the MDGs. Not really.
Some final words
One main point of this mini-article is that I am pretty sure people will react to fast. No matter what we do, we should think about it thoroughly. This article is - like hundreds of blog articles, quite a bit of "professional" journalist articles and surely some statements by politicians - not well investigated. It is only a quick, spontaneous reaction.
The other important point is that we have alternatives to more military and surveillance spendings. We should really think about that. We should talk about it and evaluate it. Finally, it the question is: In which kind of society do we want to live?
Edit: The reaction
Now it seems to be clear how most politicians react:
- Frankreichs Premier Valls: IS greift auch andere europäische Länder an
- Französisches Militär bombardiert IS-Stellungen in Syrien
- Sicherheitsmaßnahmen in Deutschland deutlich verschärft
- Du bist Terrorist: A clip by a German satire show.
- Recent French military actions:
- 2011 military intervention in Libya
- French forces in Afghanistan
- Northern Mali conflict
- War on Terror
- Euractiv (German)
- Terror in Paris: Hollande spricht von "Kriegsakt des IS"
- Anschlagserie in Paris: Hollande verhängt Ausnahmezustand für ganz Frankreich
- Terror in Paris: Attentäter nennen als Grund Frankreichs Syrien-Politik