Manchester – So Little to Answer For

Since there’s been another one of these attacks, some disconnected thoughts.

As usual, the vigils and candles and outpourings of public grief and professions of solidarity with muslims are just embarassing. We know this kind of reaction changes nothing. If you really want these kinds of attacks to stop, or even lessen in frequency, you’re going to have to find a new response.

This also goes for the low-grade interventions in the Middle East. One of my left-leaning Facebook friends has the following response to the attack: "While this is a terrible, disgusting act of cowardice, I think the solution here would not be to continue to bomb the shit out of the Middle East." Quite right. But I’m pretty sure the solution also isn’t to stop bombing the shit out of the Middle East. That is, it’s just as plausible that bombing the Middle East provides enough distraction for ISIS (and similar) that it can’t focus all the attention it wants on the West. At this point, it seems unlikely that any particular Western drone attack (or whatever) has anything to do with any individual attack in the West. Whoever pulled off this attack isn’t some strategic mastermind playing the long game. He might be in the service of some strategic masterminds playing the long game, but the end goal of that long game is unlikely to be "the West stops drone attacks." It’s something more like "Islam crushes its enemies."

The stupidity of the whole "if we’re just nice to the muslims they’ll be nice to us" meme is revealed when you start asking one of the people who supports it hard questions about why America bombs the Middle East. It generally comes down to things like "we’re slaves to Israel" or "arms manufacturers want to make money and are racist besides and as long as it’s not white people dying and they get their profit$$$$ who cares?" In other words, they’re perfectly willing to believe that people are just plain horrible if they’re on Team West. Team Islam, by contrast, is always just reacting to stuff we did and is happy to go back to reading the Koran peacefully if only we’d stop it. This is a … what’s the word? … double standard.

The same leftist friend continues with this nonsense in the comments thread:

Bombing the shit out of the Middle East created the power vacuum that exists because of the most recent Iraq war, which created ISIS. Bombing innocent civilians around the world breeds terrorism. My suggestion would be to deescalate global conflicts and start investing in education and infrastructure. If people were smarter, less religious, had decent wages, had access to healthcare, these things wouldn’t happen.

That’s superficially plausible, until you realize that every Saudi pilot bombing Yemen is educated, makes decent wages and has access to healthcare, and every US general who orders drone strikes is smart, educated, probably not religious, gets decent wages and has access to healthcare.

Maybe the point is supposed to be that if Arab Muslims in general had these things, these kinds of attacks would be less of a problem. And OK, I’ll buy that. It’s not a total solution, obviously – political violence and radical ideologies persist even in wealthy, successful countries1 – but I’m willing to entertain the idea that it might prevent a lot of these attacks – or at least that it’s not crazy to think so.

Here are the two problems with that plan.

  1. It’s fabulously expensive. Handing out enough money to provide "decent wages" across an entire region, and presumably in the UK too (since this latest attacker, though of Libyan parentage, appears to have grown up there), not to mention a full education and "access to healthcare" – I mean, we’re talking providing these things to, depending on who you include, anywhere from just shy of to just over a billion people – is probably tens of orders of magnitude more expensive than just absorbing the costs of these attacks.
  2. Even if we decided it was economically worth it, how would you propose we carry it out? Simply handing money to the existing regimes seems likely to be ineffective. After all, many of them are already quite wealthy and yet haven’t managed to provide these things – indeed see a disincentive to providing them. These regimes are either ineffective, in which case they can’t spend the money properly, or corrupt, in which case they won’t, or else they find the existence of muslim extremists politically useful (as has been alleged, for example, of the Saudi government), in which case they’ll just divert the funds to the opposite of what they’re intended for. Point being, if you want to carry out this plan properly, you’ll need exactly the kind of invasion that we already botched in Iraq and that this commenter has categorically ruled out in other contexts.

In general, it’s just really annoying watching everyone vow "never again" and virtue signal with their hugely implausible pet theories on how to prevent it every. damn. time. something like this happens. It’s almost like virtue signalling is only about appearances or something.

If you’re not just virtue signalling and you honestly want to do what it takes to prevent attacks like this, then I would suggest you confine yourself to solutions that are both radical and feasible. It’s clear that the status quo isn’t working to prevent the attacks, so you’ll have to depart from it, and depart from it meaningfully. Hence the "radical." It’s equally clear that just fantasizing about an alternate universe where Socialism works and is global – which is what I understand my friend’s suggestion to amount to – is, well, fantasy. So much would be different about that world that putting it on the table as a meaningul alternative to an attack that killed 20-ish people … um … let’s say it betrays a lack of engagement with reality. So much more than just preventing the odd attack goes into that calculation.

So what would fit the bill? What’s something that’s both radical and feasible?

I can only really think of one2: complete disengagement from the Middle East. Call it "the China option." We, the United States (bzw. United Kingdom), agree to complete military disengagement from the Middle East. We will remove all troops, remove all foreign aid (including to Israel), and all military engagements, and just generally stand down. In return, we accept no more entrants from muslim majority nations on anything other than temporary visas. No more refugees, no more immigrants. Students and guest workers is "to be decided," in the sense of "yes for now, but if disengagement lite doesn’t seem to be working, then no to that too." Arab problems are Arab problems, and ISIS is an Arab problem.

I think this is both sufficiently feasible and sufficiently radical. Note that "feasible’ need not mean "easily achieved," it just means it’s the kind of political goal that I could see the United States or United Kingdom committing to given the current state of affairs and current political sentiment. Indeed, President Trump campaigned on a platform (I mean, to the extent he campaigned on a platform) that isn’t too far from that – is at least a reasonable first step to that – and he somehow pulled off a win. You can argue that "yeah, but not a majority" all you want – we know that a significant chunk of the citizenry already supports something like this. It’s radical, but it’s not fringe, you might say.

I am neither endorsing nor rejecting this plan. My own feeling is that the casualties from these random attacks are at a more than acceptable level, and so there’s no need to do anything. Yes, each death is a tragedy, but for now we’re talking numbers and property damage that are positively dwarfed by any category of annual natural disaster, let alone automobile accidents or alcohol-related incidents. As objectionable as I know most people will find this, my honest advice is just live with it – carry on as if nothing happened. No new security measures, no calls for immigration bans, no maudlin rhetoric, no silly candellight vigils, no Union Jacks on your Facebook profiles, no pointless expressions of solidarity with a childish religion. Just generally stop feeling like you have to "do something" every time the news shows you an uncomfortable picture.

But for the people who want Something to be Done – a modest proposal. Stop saying things that reduce to – when you cancel out all the variables – "I wish it hadn’t happened" and actually do something positive about it. That goes for both right and left. On the left, for example, stop for a minute and consider how idiotic it is to argue, out of one side of your mouth, that muslims being alienated by our western xenophobia is what causes these attacks while, out of the other side of your mouth, you call everyone who disagrees with you a racist, ignorant bigot. If you really believe that treating people like "others" and disconnecting them from society renders any violent reaction on their part regretable but understandable, then take the following challenge: go on Facebook and post that what Anders Breivik did was tragic and misguided, but that the responsibility lies partly with us for alienating him. You can’t, and you won’t, but if you’re honest with yourself you get my point. You get it at least to the degree of understanding that condescending to people who you think need to get to know their muslim neighbors better isn’t likely to inspire them to get out and do that. And fine, maybe that’s not your job. Except that it IS your job if you (a) mean what you say about wanting meaningful change and (b) honestly believe your own rhetoric about alienation. As for the right, the right is already largely putting its money where its mouth is (by electing people like Trump) on this issue, so my real complaint there is that I think it’s kind of incoherent. The level of deaths from terrorist attacks, at least at the moment, is below the level of deaths caused by a lot of things you support, like gun and automobile ownership. Whenever there’s a mass shooting, you quickly point out what a tiny minority of gun owners mass shooters are, and how even if we managed to take away all the guns, which is impractical in the extreme, mass shooters would just switch methods, possibly to something more deadly (a la Timothy McVeigh). I find both of those arguments completely convincing – which is why I don’t see why you can’t apply them to terrorist attacks as well. Lone wolf terrorist attacks, like this one in Manchester, are exactly analogous to mass shootings, in that they’re rare and probaby unpreventable anyway. Demonizing everyone of muslim descent living in the UK because of the actions of one is not terribly different from demonizing all gun owners for "enabling" the most recent mass shooting. Alright, I’m exaggerating a little: there is actually some sympathy from many muslims for these attacks, whereas I guess very close to zero law-abiding gun owners cheer on mass shooters. Nevertheless, I think it would be helpful to have some ground rules. What’s the threshold? Give me numbers (can be percentages; should be percentages). What degrees of terrorist activity require what degrees of solution? You can say things like "even a single death warrants a complete expulsion of all muslim invaders" if you like, but in doing so I think you give up the right coherently pose questions like "how many more of these attacks does it take before people wake up?" Because that’s phrased in terms that belie what you just said. If there were seriously a fifth column muslim invasion of the type you’re describing underway, we’d have already seen mass coordination in these kinds of attacks. That is, there’d be muslim strikes, or coordinated suicide bombings, or whatever else. Now, my point isn’t that these kinds of fears are completely unwarranted, just that if they’re longing for conquest they’re currently being really, really, really very lazy about it. Like, way lazier than we would be if we were systematically infiltrating Islamia. So, you, no less than the left, need to start saying coherent things. If you want people to seriously move on banning muslim immigration – and I’m not in principle opposed to it – then you need to make your theory verifiable and demonstrate that it passes cost-benefit. Right now, evidence for that is sorely lacking, and without it, you’re never going to have the votes you need.

Mostly, though, I stick to what I said earlier. This attack is tragic, but it is not "shocking," and so I think in response we should simply do … nothing that we’re not already doing. This is ambient reality now. These kinds of things will happen. I’m not going to express solidarity with muslims or call for stopping anti-muslim hate speech because I know that the kind of people who pull off these attacks don’t actually respond to things like that. Besides, we do need to have a national conversation about Islam. Sorry liberals, but it’s not an unimplicated variable. But neither am I going to indulge in anti-muslim hate speech myself, and I’m sure as hell not going to sign on to any new laws or security mechanisms. Both left and right: show me the numbers, and show me the plan, and then we’ll talk. Right now, neither of you seem all that serious.

  1. Like, for example, Norway, where a dude just randomly decided to kill as many people as he could to make a political statement, put himself through some rigorous self desensitization training to work up to it, and then did a pretty damn good job causing a lot of carnage.

  2. More accurately, I can think of one class of solution. Please don’t nitpick; you know what I mean.

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