The terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, linked to the Islamic State radicals have significantly changed the course of domestic politics in France and the United States. Both the National Front leader Marine Le Pen and the Republican front-runner Donald Trump are drawing on popular fears of terrorism to surge ahead in their respective presidential campaigns.
Le Pen charges that the French government has abandoned “our own” poor while offering all sorts of assistance to illegal immigrants, which is “thievery.” Trump has demanded “a total and complete shutdown” of U.S. borders to all Muslim immigrants.
Such rhetoric has resonated with the public and is shifting conservative political parties further to the right. The French center-right Republican Party has taken up an anti-immigration line that differs very little from Le Pen’s. Jeb Bush, a centrist within the Republican Party, has changed his stance on immigration: He now supports accepting Syrian refugees only if they are Christian.
The Islamic State extremists have begun to target the lives and lifestyles of ordinary citizens, in everyday recreational spaces. The group is attempting to provoke a “clash of civilizations” between Islam and Christianity — in the very hearts of the Western world.
There are growing calls in the U.S. and across Europe to expel the outsiders (“heretics”), and erect walls along national borders. Jarosław Kaczynski of Poland’s Law and Justice Party has argued that Syrian refugees should be made to “form an army” to fight the Islamic State group, rather than “drink their coffee” in cities across Europe. Is this perhaps what the terrorist group intended to make happen?
This anti-immigration backlash is partially the result of the long-term economic doldrums. Trump’s phenomenal rise can be explained in large part by his ability to give voice to the anger of poor, uneducated white men.
An American constitutional scholar I dined with recently put it this way: “Manual laborers, check-out clerks, security guards — they all think of themselves as ‘losers,’ and believe that others see them as losers, too. On the other hand, immigrants may enter into the lowest social strata, but they see this as the starting point for their climb up the social ladder — and others also see it this way. White males feel as if they have been left holding the short end of the stick — and this frustration feeds their antipathy toward immigrants.”
At the root of this animosity lie the workers’ economic fear of their “commodification” due to globalization and revolution in artificial intelligence technology, and their cultural anxiety prompted by an influx of “others.”
On the subject of U.S. intervention in the Syrian conflict, President Barack Obama has said that “America is not the world’s policeman.” Declaring that he will not repeat the mistakes of his predecessor George W. Bush by responding to terrorist attacks with disproportionate force, the Obama administration has limited the U.S. response to airborne strikes of Islamic State targets.
Obama’s argument is a sound one. However, presenting impoverished, fearful white males with a logical argument (and especially ones that come across as politically correct) may only spread the Trump phenomenon. There is real danger that this phenomenon will revive the political demagoguery and social intolerance of the early 1950s McCarthyism in the U.S.
Obama also takes aim at gun control. But it remains unclear whether or not he will be able to convert the American public, many of whom attach an almost religious significance to gun ownership. Since 9/11, 40 Americans have fallen victim to terrorist attacks. Over the same period, more than 250,000 Americans have been killed in gun-related violence.
In the fight against terrorism, the key is to know the enemies within — be they guns themselves, gun-loving “cowboys” or evangelical fundamentalists. We must also overcome our own fears. In the midst of the Great Depression in the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt told Americans that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
In this sense, the band U2 may be on the very front lines of the fight against terrorism. It gave two concerts in Paris, on the nights of Dec. 6 and 7. U2 had been scheduled to perform on Nov. 14 and 15, but these concerts were quickly canceled after the Nov. 13 Paris attacks by the Islamic State radicals. One of the Nov. 13 attacks had occurred at the Bataclan Theater, during a performance by the American band Eagles of Death Metal. Amid lingering fears, U2 returned to Paris three weeks later. At the end of their performance, the band was joined on stage by the Eagles of Death Metal. Together they performed the Patti Smith song “People Have the Power.”
U2 hails from Ireland, a country that for years endured terrorism by the Irish Republican Army. Lead singer Bono has spoken of the trauma of having narrowly avoided, at the age of 14, a terrorist attack in Dublin that left 33 people dead. In an interview with The New York Times, Bono stated: “Terrorism relies on people being terrified, and we were not going to be. … Rock ‘n’ roll is a life force, and it’s joy as an act of defiance.
“There’s a line I’ve been using since (the Paris attacks), which is that in Ireland we know not to become a monster in order to defeat a monster.”
Yoichi Funabashi is chairman of the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation and former editor-in-chief of the Asahi Shimbun. This is a translation of his column in the monthly Bungei Shunju. The foundation has published a new book, “Sengo Hoshu wa Owatta Noka — Jiminto Seiji no Kiki” (“The End of Japan’s Moderate Conservatism”).