Thoughts on Paris, Terrorism, and Refugees: Why We Don’t Need to Step Up Counter Terrorism and Why Refugees are on Our Side

Taking a break from the usual Africa focus.  It’s been nearly two weeks since terrorists from the Islamic State massacred 130 people on the streets of Paris, and 40 more in Beirut.  Since then there’s been an outpouring of support on Facebook and from governments around the world, a lockdown in Brussels, intensified military action in Syria, and of course the inevitable calls to close the borders to scary refugees.

But there’s also been something else: Paris, at least from a distance, seems to have largely returned to life as usual.  And it’s beautiful.  Scenes of Parisians flocking back to cafes show more defiant patriotism than all the bombing raids we can ever do; I never thought it would be possible to feel patriotic by drinking coffee, but that’s exactly how I felt when I sat down at the ArtCaffe at Westgate Mall in Nairobi, scene of some of the first shots of that horrendous mass murder, a few days after it had re-opened.  Returning to the scenes of violence to eat dinner, drink coffee, and listen to music sends a clear message: terrorists’ goal in committing such violence was to change us, to goad us into doing something stupid, and they failed.

Here’s what I think we can learn from the attacks in Paris and other places around the world.

  1. There is no moral equivalency between terrorist massacres and Western military actions in the Middle East or elsewhere.

One article circulating on Facebook was a Guardian piece pointing out that perhaps 450 civilians have been killed by US- and European-led airstrikes in Syria and Iraq.  The implication is clear: yes the terrorist attacks in Paris were evil, but we’re not so great ourselves—just look at all those civilians our drones have killed.

Yet comparing the two is to conflate results with intent.  When a Western country’s actions result in civilian deaths, there was no intent to kill civilians.  Quite the opposite: we consider civilian deaths in war to be a tragedy, and actively try to minimize such casualties.  For example, a friend of mine’s mother works as a “humanitarian mapper” in the RAF: a position whose job it is to find where all the civilians live so air strikes can avoid killing them.  Think about that for a second: a military organization is employing someone whose job it is to stop it from killing people.  Indeed, Western militaries spend billions every year developing precision strike technologies to minimize civilian deaths, and it seems to be working: according to the Guardian piece, there have been more than 5,700 air strikes since the air campaign against the Islamic State began, but only 52 of these strikes have resulted in civilian casualties—in other words, 99% of Western air strikes have NOT resulted in civilian deaths.

In terrorism, of course, the intent is precisely the opposite: to maximize civilian casualties.  To gun down unarmed, defenseless people, exactly because that is what will create the most fear.  (For that matter, pretty much all other societies in human history—including western ones pre-1945—have been willing to inflict broad civilian casualties on enemy populations if it advanced the aims of the war.)

Of course we don’t always succeed in protecting civilians, and of course it is true that Western armed forces have sometimes been implicated in atrocities.  But the fact that we consider them to be atrocities matters: they are atrocities because they go against our own values, not because of them.

  1. There’s not much we can do to entirely prevent terrorism – and we probably wouldn’t want to do much more than we’re already doing.

Although reporting on the Paris attacks frequently described them as “sophisticated” and “coordinated,” I am struggling to see what is so sophisticated about eight guys getting guns and shooting unarmed people in crowded public places.  In fact, it seems incredibly easy: as long as you can get a gun (especially a fully automatic one), it’s very, very easy to walk into any crowded area and start killing people.  Indeed, lone wolves like the Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook gunmen managed to kill more people per shooter than the Islamic State terrorists in Paris.

terror deaths

While the ISIS terrorists killed more people in total, there were at least 8 attackers – the lone wolves involved in America’s own mass shootings have killed more per gunmen

Could intelligence agencies have acted faster on information indicating the possibility of an attack?  Perhaps.  But of course any information before an attack is, by definition, imperfect, and can only be known to be accurate in hindsight.  So intelligence officers must make judgments about how real or likely a potential threat is based on the information they have at the time.  And inevitably, that judgment will sometimes be wrong—unless, that is, we are willing to require our intelligence agencies to act on any possible threat, which would be hugely disruptive to life and civil liberties.

If we don’t want to give indiscriminate power to intelligence agencies, what about beefing up security at “soft targets”?  For example, one conservative commentator said he was too scared to see the new Star Wars movie because there are no metal detectors at theaters.

Ubiquitous security is essentially the approach taken in many East African countries—and trust me, it’s not worth it.  Imagine having to go through airport security every time you wanted to enter your office or go shopping.  Just walking into a supermarket in Kampala, Nairobi, or Kigali usually requires a pat down and a trip through a metal detector.  At higher end shopping malls, you can face as many as three security checks: a security guard opening each car door to check inside as you enter the parking garage, followed by a metal detector and a rummage through your backpack when you enter the mall, followed by a pat down when you enter whatever store you are going to.  The car checks frequently cause traffic jams as it takes 2-3 minutes for each car to enter the garage: if there are only 10 cars, that’s a 30 minute wait.  I was happy to endure these small hassles for a few weeks after the Westgate massacre, but after a while you realize it’s not possible to live life under lockdown.

And really, does this added security actually do anything?  If you post a guard and a metal detector at the entrance to a shopping mall, all it does is force a terrorist to take out his gun outside the mall instead of inside.  The Economist points out that even airport security allows a lot to slip through, partly because the job is just so repetitive that humans checking metal detectors become numb to the routine; “A lot of what passes for security at airports is more theatrical than real.”

Unless we’re willing to go all the way and make every soft target a hard one—to require armed guards and metal detectors at the entrance to every shop, train, and bus, to post snipers on the perimeters of every mall, to subject ourselves to random police checkpoints on every road—it will always be easy for terrorists to attack.  And such a security state is not one most of us would want to live in.

  1. This huge gap between ease and frequency shows how little we have to fear from terrorism, not how much.

So it begs the question: if these attacks are so easy, and the world is full of terrorists trying to carry them out, then why aren’t these attacks happening all the time?  While I’m sure some of this has to do with the few dozen terrorist attacks that are foiled every year by our intelligence agencies, I think there’s a simpler explanation: there just aren’t that many terrorists out there trying to kill us.  If there were, you’d see a lot more Westgates and Parises.

The CIA estimates that there are 31,500 ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria.  That would just about fill the visitors’ side of Cowboys stadium.  Even if you quadruple that estimate, you’re getting into the realm of The Big House—certainly a lot of people signed up for an evil ideology, but not much compared with the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, and certainly nothing that can threaten the economic and military juggernaut of the US, Canada, and Europe.

And the results show.  With so few terrorists in the world who are trying to kill us, there are just not that many of us being killed by terrorists.  In fact, terrorism is about the least likely thing in the world to kill you—you’re more likely to be struck by lightning.


Anti-terrorism spending per death is 50,000x greater than spending on leading causes of death like heart disease and cancer.  source:

So why worry?  As the wild dog sparks panic in the gazelle, causing the herd to flee and leave behind or trample the vulnerable to make a tasty meal for the dogs, the only way terrorists can actually damage our societies is by panicking us into causing self-inflicted wounds: goading us into foreign wars that deplete our resources and push more Muslims into ISIS’s camp, or curtailing our civil liberties in the name of the illusion of security.  Indeed, more Americans have died avenging 9/11 in Iraq and Afghanistan than died in 9/11 itself.  How does that make any sense?

If the gazelle just stayed in their herd and kept grazing, the dogs would get close, then get scared of the herd’s sheer size and run away.  Likewise, in response to terrorism, the proper amount of change required of our societies is surprisingly close to zero.

(Yes, I know it’s a bit annoying to refer to ourselves as a herd of gazelle.  Perhaps a better analogy would be a couple of mangy hyenas trying to attack a pride of lions).

  1. The Paris attacks show us why we should let refugees in, not keep them out.

I know that several of our Presidential candidates, despite their tough talk, are actually scared of widows and orphans.  But the truth is, numerically and ideologically, the refugees are on our side.

There were at least 8 attackers in Paris, and out of them 1 had possibly posed as a Syrian refugee.  But that means the other 7 were French or Belgian.  If we’re going to ban Syrian refugees from entering the US, by this logic shouldn’t we be 7x more eager to ban the French and Belgians from our shores?

Nationalities of paris attackers

More than 700,000 refugees have entered Europe in the past year, and out of them one maybe turned out to be a terrorist.  Should we really be basing national policy on 1 in 700,000 chances?  Those seem like pretty non-scary odds to me.

But more than the numbers, look at the nature of the people who are fleeing to the West.  Two months ago I was skeptical of the calls to allow migrants into Europe; their habit of complaining that Hungary wasn’t rich enough, they wanted Germany or Sweden, sure seemed like looking a gift horse in the mouth.  But as I’ve read more, both stories from the refugees themselves and the arguments of those opposing them, I’ve become more sympathetic.  Like this one about three widows who had been forced to marry ISIS fighters and join the religious police, then fled because they couldn’t abide its cruelty or the suicidal ideology of their husbands.

The people who flee from Syria and Iraq aren’t the ISIS supporters—otherwise they wouldn’t have left.  The people who flee are the ones who hate ISIS so much that they are willing to risk everything to get out.  Finding ways to cross ISIS checkpoints.  Leaving families behind and having to figure out how to keep them alive from afar.  Searching for better lives in the West.  These guys are on our side.

It’s the people traveling the other way we need to be worried about.  And the best way to maximize that flow of people is to do exactly what many politicians are now calling for: closing the borders, bombing more indiscriminately, and isolating communities.  Such actions are sure to breed the resentment and economic stagnation that ISIS recruiters feed on.

Instead, we should be welcoming refugees who want to escape repression, integrating immigrant communities so they can join in our societies, and fostering trade with Muslim countries to promote economic opportunities beyond the $100 a month young men can earn as a fighter.

If someone is willing to risk it all to escape ISIS and settle in the West, that’s someone I want to welcome to my shores.



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