Photo of Mark Rutte by Roel Wijnants via Flickr
It was Francois Hollande who started it. Calling the co-ordinated attacks in his capital city, in which 129 people have so far died, an “act of war” was a heat-of-the-moment response to an event that plunged his country into extreme shock. Yet it has changed the tone of the debate across Europe fundamentally. Security experts are lining up to tell us we must hand in our right to privacy to the government for safekeeping. Now Mark Rutte has leapt on the bandwagon, declaring that “ISIS is our enemy, we are at war with them.”
Killing 129 people is many dreadful things: mindless slaughter, a multiple tragedy, a perversion of a religion by a handful of deranged zealots, but an act of war it is not. It’s not even a respectable skirmish. Daesh’s army, such as it is, is mainly kept busy slaughtering civilians in Syria and Iraq, the vast majority of them Muslims. Its European operation seems to be a ragtag bunch of Al Qaeda wannabes with Kalashnikovs and bomb belts. It doesn’t take a lot of organisation, or imagination, to take a shotgun into a crowded building and start firing. It certainly doesn’t take an army.
Daesh’s strategy is to sell the vicious fantasy that it is engaged in a “culture war” between Islam and the west. It hopes Muslims will be alienated in Europe and seen as “the enemy within”, so it can offer them sanctuary. As with a phishing scam, most will reject their overtures, but it only takes a few suckers to keep the wheels spinning. But its nightmare scenario can only become real with the complicity of non-Muslim Europeans. By describing the deaths of his fellow citizens in Paris as an act of war, Hollande is indulging and legitimising this mad fantasy. And now Rutte is following suit.
It is a curiosity of democracy that politicians are generally seen as self-serving, deceitful, expenses-fiddling liars who care only about their jobs, their limousines and their poll ratings. But there is one magic word that allows a politician to blow away the clouds of cynicism. A politician who cries war is suddenly transformed into a fearless statesman, willing to talk tough and do whatever it takes to protect his people from danger, real or imaginary. Read my lips: we are at war. Feel the rush and lock your critical faculties in the cellar.
Back in January, after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Rutte pointedly avoided using the word “war” to describe the situation in Paris. When challenged to echo a statement to that effect by Freedom Party leader and longstanding Islam-basher Geert Wilders, Rutte replied: “I would never use that term.” Instead he referred to the bombing of Daesh targets in Iraq by Dutch planes as “the armed struggle”. So what has changed in nine months? Hollande wanted to send out a strong message in response to the atrocities of Paris, and chose a belligerent tone. It may be sheer coincidence that the French regional elections are taking place in less than three weeks, or that these are seen as an important barometer for the presidential election in 2017, or that Marine Le Pen’s Front National has been riding high since the departmental elections in March. But it would not be the first time an unpopular leader has seized an opportunity to ratchet up the war rhetoric in order to outflank a challenge from the nationalist right.
Similarly, it is striking how Rutte’s harder tone coincides with a sharp swing in the opinion polls in Wilders’s favour. The PVV’s support had been dwindling away over the summer, but the deepening refugee crisis has galvanised his support. Eighteen months (or less) out from an election, newspapers are starting to speculate about a Wilders premiership. The government is fearful Paris will give him a further boost. Wilders scores highest in times of crisis and division; his response to the refugee crisis is to call for the borders to be closed and the refugees to be sent back to Syria, so that Daesh can take another shot at them. He has become Daesh’s most prominent helper whitey. But in trying to outgun Wilders on the security issue, Rutte has legitimised his foes at home and abroad.
Rutte will protest – indeed, he already has – that his comments are aimed not at Islam or a particular country, but it matters not. Wilders’s calls to send refugees back to the Syrian killing fields will grow stronger in response. The latest wheeze is to lock up fighters returning from the civil war, Guantanamo Bay-style, though nobody has paused to think about how long they should be detained or what should be done with them.
Bombing Syria will lead to civilian casualties and so harden Daesh’s grievance, while strengthening the hand of Bashar Al Assad, a war criminal who gases and drops barrel bombs on his own people. There is no sensible case for it. Limiting the number of legitimate refugees will simply increase the number who travel to and live in Europe illegally, which just makes it harder to work out who the real terrorists are. And giving the police more scope to use lethal force sounds fine, until you remember that a few weeks ago a high-speed train was evacuated by armed guards because a fare-dodging teenager had locked himself in the toilet. Yet we live in such a neurotic age that many people would have felt safer if he had been shot dead.
Like the invasion of Iraq, the phoney war against Daesh will create more casualties than it saves. It fosters a “them and us” mentality that frames every refugee and Muslim, or anyone who looks like they might be one, as a potential enemy. Aside from being an invidious trend, it makes the actual terrorists invisible. We protect our freedoms best by building open societies where justice and authority are accountable, not Eastern Bloc-style security states. Which of our leaders will dare to fight for that?