How can you deal with an enemy that is truly incorrigible? That is the problem facing western European states (notably France and Belgium) in the face of mass casualty attacks by Islamic State and their affiliates. The playbook that many western states have been using is based on a set of premises that simply do not apply to Islamic State and the lone attackers they inspire. The playbook goes something like this: alongside robust security responses to attacks, we can very probably negotiate with our foes. These negotiations are not about finding some sort of perfect peace. Instead, they are about lowering the costs of violence, seeing if there can be negotiated outcomes on some issues and – cynically – exhausting foes and encouraging splits within their ranks.
The basic premise is one of negotiation. There are, of course, my varieties of negotiation (face-to-face, shuttle, leveraged, pre-conditioned etc.) but the notion of exchanging ideas is constant. But what do states do in the case of opponents that seem to want only one thing: your life? These opponents live in a zero sum world in which there is no prospect of harmonious co-existence between groups.
The obvious response is a security one: if the other party is not open to listening then there is no point in speaking. Yet, security responses have been the default. Britain, France, the US and many other states are engaged in permanent war (with airstrikes in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere) and permanent securitization of travel, infrastructure and key events. Doubtless this has averted many attacks, but events in Paris, Nice, Brussels and elsewhere show that security is less than total and that civilians are likely to be the main victims.
But looking at the profile of the attackers, they seem disaffected individuals and small groups of individuals who feel no stake in the society they live in. This, it strikes me, is more fruitful territory to try to stave off further attacks. This strategy would not please Captain Kneejerk or Colonel Bomb Them Back to the Stone Age. It does not have any immediate pay-off and does not bring a sense of ‘striking back’. There is no guarantee that it will not stop lone actors. As the Anders Brevik case showed, even a society with good social provision can produce disaffected individuals capable of extreme violence.
But minimising disaffection seems to be the best long-term strategy. This would involve multiple measures and be something more than the empty rhetoric of a ‘360 degree response’ (copyright David Cameron’s speechwriter) that delivers the same old nonsense. Minimising disaffection would involve addressing the legacy of colonialism, avoiding pointless and unwinnable wars, an ethical foreign policy (that disassociates western states with serial human rights abusers like Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Israel), a political rhetoric based on understanding the other and – fundamentally – domestic policies of social inclusion that regard ghettoes as unacceptable.
All of this might sound like pie in the sky. But consider, for a moment, the level of disaffection required to make an individual drive a truck through a crowded street – crushing children along the way. This level of indiscrimination came from somewhere. Surely it deserves serious investigation.
Otherwise yet another set of European politicians can don on black clothes, come up with the usual statements, and continue along the same path.