Professor’s Take: Consider how civil war and terrorism are related

Shawn McHale is an associate professor of history and international affairs.

In the spring of 1977, I was taking a Histoire-Géo class at the Lycée Émile Zola in Rennes, France, with a fabulous teacher, Monsieur Nébout. I immediately took a liking to one of my fellow students in the class, Émile who, like me, was a foreigner.

Émile was a Maronite Christian from Lebanon. A recent immigrant to France, he seemed much older and more worldly than anyone else. Having visited Lebanon and having lived in the Middle East, it was perhaps natural that I would talk to him before class.

A few years earlier, Émile had dropped out of school in Lebanon to join a Phalangist militia fighting the Palestinian Liberation Organization during the civil war. He avoided talking about these experiences with anyone, including Monsieur Nébout.

But one day, Monsieur Nébout, not one to beat around the bush, asked Émile, “So, if you were at a checkpoint, and you had a gun, and a Palestinian walked up to the checkpoint, what would you do?”

Emile’s response was immediate, unrehearsed and visceral. “I’d kill him.”

That exchange has stayed with me all my life. Émile, an ordinary and likeable guy, was willing to kill unarmed civilians. I thought about his example in the aftermath of the recent Paris terrorist attacks that are at least tangentially linked to the ongoing civil war in Syria. Wars can harden individuals and confirm their hatred toward others.

Civil wars are particularly pernicious – ripping apart the social fabric, turning neighbors and mild antagonists into bitter enemies. They can also create ideologues who, while not combatants themselves, champion barbarism and in so doing, bring new recruits into the fold. Once set in motion, there is no simple way to halt this dynamic of civil war socialization.

Scale is important. Those who construct “macro” arguments on terrorism – blaming “radical Islam,” for example, or xenophobic nationalism – miss the point. All killing is local, so one needs to look at socialization, the microdynamics of violence and variations in patterns of violence, then connect these to “macro” concerns. When we do this, we get a more fine-grained understanding of why people kill.

I have wondered a lot about Émile and his ilk these past few years as we have seen constant reminders of how civil wars can turn normal individuals into extraordinary killers. In the popular imagination, terrorists are ideological fanatics. They are inhuman, willing to blow up innocent civilians with no remorse. And they are interchangeable: They are all alike.

The reality is more complex, as the example of Émile shows. I have been studying civil war violence for more than ten years now, and the research provides sobering lessons. Members of all major world religions have occasionally embraced the use of terror.

Blowing innocent people up, attacking theaters and massacring civilians – none of this is new. Suicide bombers? Explosive belts? They’ve been used many times. Young men involved in violence? Yes, it’s like an iron law.

But some of the most intriguing findings go against popular preconceptions about “terrorists.” People can kill others for the most quotidian reasons: revenge, jealousy, recognition or a desire to be something more than a petty crook.

The idea that ancient hatreds are at the root of civil war violence? Grossly exaggerated. Yes, societies can be riven by differences. But it is the dynamic of violence that hardens these cleavages, then makes cold-blooded killing possible.

Civil wars can be hard to brake to a halt. In some cases, it is possible to act preemptively and make sure that ethnic, religious or political differences don’t harden. But not always.

Outside interventions often fail. The idea that major powers can intervene in faraway places, kill hundreds of thousands and displace millions across national borders – all at no risk to themselves or their allies – is a dangerous illusion shared by large swathes of the global foreign policy elite as well as domestic politicians.

What may make good domestic politics sometimes makes horrible foreign policy choices, ones that we have to live with for decades to come.

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