Extremist attacks are cause for concern, but they force us to reflect on how to protect our values. And how to co-exist with fellow humans, also scared.

Two women mourning in Lebanon, 11 January 2015. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
Two women mourning in Lebanon, 11 January 2015. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

By Nelson Graves

In the aftermath of the attacks in Paris, my thoughts turn to young people who soon will assume positions of leadership and inherit the world and its problems.

Marketers call it the millennial generation, young people roughly between 18 and 30 years of age.

Some of them remember 9/11, while others were too young at the time to have any recollection of that day. Many recall Madrid and London. All now know Paris.

Many have grown up in the midst of violent extremism that has killed thousands of innocent civilians around the world.

It is worth remembering that most acts of terrorism occur in countries gripped by civil strife. Between 2000-13, more than four out of five people killed by acts of terrorism were in five countries — Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria and Syria — according to the Global Terrorism Index.

Five percent of the more than 100,000 killed by terrorism in that period died in the 34 developed countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

A global threat that needs a global solution

Wherever today’s young people live, they have grown up in an era of violence against civilians that is as globalized as their jeans or smartphones.

What lessons can young people draw from violence in Paris, Beirut, the Sinai and elsewhere?

First, extremism is a global threat that will need a global solution. We are all implicated and all threatened. We are collectively responsible to find a solution.

Second, we should avoid falling into traps that terrorism can set. The natural temptation after an attack is to seek revenge, often through military means. While the fight against extremism has a military component, force is not a panacea.

The fight against violent extremism will be long and hard, and will require efforts at many different levels: education, economic development, security, communication.

In the case of the Paris attacks, a case has been made that one of Islamic State’s goals might be to draw Western forces into a ground battle in Syria and Iraq. French President François Hollande has promised a “merciless” riposte to the attacks last week. Two days after the Paris attacks, French warplanes bombed Islamic State positions in Syria. To what extent will France concentrate on a military response?

Some people believe that perpetrators of violence have the upper hand because they are motivated by ideology, something lacking in their targets.

All of us should dig deep and ask ourselves: What are the values that I hold most dear? Values that are threatened by violent extremism?

Liberty, equality, fraternity

Thinking about the attacks in Paris, three words come to mind: liberty, equality, fraternity. Values that are enshrined in the French Republic and underpin universal human rights.

Liberty requires a delicate balance between freedom and security. There is a temptation after suffering a violent attack to crack down on security. While freedom cannot exist without security, an overemphasis on security can suffocate citizens’ freedom.

Equality is important to ensure all citizens have the opportunity to thrive and grow. Integration of minorities into society is a formidable challenge, one that French leaders acknowledge needs greater attention.

Much has been written of late about economic disparities in many Western countries, and the gap between the rich and the poor has widened in many societies. Where large segments of society feel excluded, there is the risk of radicalization.

How to co-exist

Finally, fraternity is the recognition that despite differences, we need each other to survive. It is a value that will be increasingly tested as large numbers of migrants seek new homes in new countries.

One of the ironies of the Paris attacks is that they have stirred calls by some to limit the number of refugees fleeing violence in Syria who are admitted to Europe. While it is important to ensure extremists are not hidden among refugees, is it fair to punish those legitimately seeking asylum from violence in Syria itself?

As we noted in a story last week, climate change is likely to uproot millions of people in coming decades, many of them from Africa, which is projected to experience by far the largest increases in population.

The West needs to prepare for these flows, which cannot be held back by mere border controls or policy directives.

Recent attacks are cause for concern, but they force us to reflect on how to protect the values our societies hold dear. And how to co-exist with fellow humans, also threatened, also scared.

3 Comments

A time to reflect

  1. Thank you, Nelson, for your calm, thoughtful and very caring insight into an almost unfathomable problem. And thank God that you and your family — and our other colleagues — are safe. With admiration and affection for you all. Charlie.

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