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The Image of the Common Enemy

In recent years, the question of whether the European Union as a fundamental idea can succeed has become louder and louder. First the Euro crisis, and now the refugee crisis have divided the European Union, disrupting the image of a community of unified, equal member states. But then Paris happened, then Istanbul, now Brussels. Disregarding all other problems, in the face of a common enemy the member states of the EU send a clear, unanimous message: We stand united against this threat. Facebook profile pictures display the French flag; the Eiffel Tower shines in black, yellow and red—the colors of the Belgian flag. Just like after 9/11, virtually all states in the Western world unanimously vow their full support for the victim nation. “A while ago the term intelligence cooperation did not even exist,” the president of the BAKS, the national academy for security politics in Germany, Dr. Heinz Kamp told the HPR. Today, in face of terrorist attacks in the heart of Europe, “there is much more cooperation” between Western nations, even in the most sensitive fields: It appears that terrorist attacks are uniting the Western world in a way that is unseen in times of non-military crisis. The reason for this newfound unity is the presence of a common enemy.

Having a clear enemy makes life a lot simpler. Conflict and suffering around the world can easily be attributed to one of the readily available images of the enemy. When a drone accidentally bombs a Doctors Across Borders hospital, for example, it is easy to assume ISIS is to blame. Studies suggest that the concrete idea of the enemy makes people feel more secure overall, because they can channel fear and insecurity to a defined source. People are most afraid of what they do not know—a threat, however dangerous it may be, seems less daunting when we at least know what and where it is. In addition, the presence of an enemy allows for people to feel more confident about their own morality. But these positive influences that the image of a common enemy creates turn out to have serious side effects.

The greatest danger of getting absorbed in the fight against the common enemy is forgetting about common purposes. Take the example of the European Union. For as long as it has existed, the European Union has had a common purpose to unite its members; first it was a peaceful Europe, and then it was prosperity and the spread of democracy. Today, it seems to be without such a common goal. That has had dire consequences. As Harvard European Studies Professor Peter Hall, says, “the absence of a sense of common purpose in the European Union today is like an acid corrosive of the ability of the member states to cooperate to solve the many problems they face.” An image of the enemy does not bring real unity and strength, instead giving rise to blindness and a vicious circle of fear and hate. Individuals start defining themselves as “us” in contrast to “them,” and fail to realize that the fight against the common enemy can never be won since self-nurturing fear itself becomes the enemy.

The Biggest Threat

“Terrorism is a great threat and needs to be defeated.” This truism is incomplete. It fails to consider that focusing on a threat and fighting it can become a threat itself. It significantly skews a portion of our thinking and obstructs the search for common ground. Moreover, the questionable morality of the image of the enemy and the constant urge to define it turns out to be a vicious cycle. Fear is the major driving force in this cycle; the more we try to act on it, the more we nurture it. Focusing on the image of the common enemy in order to defeat it is self-defeating in nature.

The fight against the common enemy can never be won due to the impossible task of first defining it and second targeting it. Determining who is the enemy is more than difficult. Can we objectively tell the difference between those whose motives are morally inferior and reveal an enemy versus those that simply have adverse interests? Even if there are actions that clearly suggest an enemy, such as a horrible terrorist attacks on civilians, the question of who exactly the enemy is remains. Is it the individual placing the bomb, the organization behind it, or the environment that gave birth to it? What do we make of the fact that “homegrown terrorism,” as Kamp, Renzi, and Hall agree, is a big part of the problem? The identification of the common enemy is dubious at the least.

The Danger to Our Judgment

The need for a common and distinct enemy leaves us vulnerable to many damaging biases. Someone who sees ISIS as the common enemy and associates it with Islam and the Arab world may consequently behave in less friendly and more suspicious ways towards Arabs. This in turn causes mutual dislike, which provides confirming evidence for being suspicious. In psychology this is called a self-fulfilling prophecy. In general, people tend to only pay attention to evidence that supports their pre-established beliefs and ignore counterevidence. The established image of the common enemy is caught in a cycle of confirmation bias. Even when we believe ourselves to be judging objectively, we most likely are not. This not only makes reasonable and rational decision making impossible, but even worse, the discrimination against particular groups within a state can alienate individuals, making them more vulnerable to extremist indoctrination.

A second problem with the focus on the enemy is the fatal disruption of communication. This was proven true over the course of the Cold War, when opportunities to find common ground for negotiation were ignored, reasonable proposals were rejected, and efforts for reconciliation were met with suspicion. This was all due to the identification of an opponent as not simply an adversary, but as an enemy that could not be trusted under any circumstances. While the USSR and ISIS are incomparable on a more general scale, they are comparable in their function as the common enemy. What we can learn from the past is that we may need to de-demonize enemies in order to increase chances for resolving the conflict.

The second problem concerns the fight itself. If we could single out a cause, what if it cannot be fought? Take the environment that creates and supports terrorism: “What we are seeing is the continuous and lasting erosion of states,” Kamp said. In this context “our political and economic tools lose their edge.” In fact, there may be no winner in this conflict, no way of addressing the “root causes.” In a fight that cannot be won, the urge to define the enemy becomes a vicious circle, in which the search for the common foe makes us focus on our fear and then search only harder in the desire to channel this fear.

In his speech on March 31 at Harvard, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi addressed this very issue. “We are in crisis,” he said, “because for the first time after a [long] period without a vision and without a strategy terrorists try to change our lives. They won’t kill us. In alternative, they try to force us to live in terror.” By focusing more and more on the enemy we let the fight against terrorism become part of our identity and fear our biggest motivation. When we forget about our other goals over the strive for security we let the terrorists succeed.

What We Can Do

There is no doubt that ISIS has to be fought. But as Kamp said, “force is only a small part of the options we have.” Terrorism is more than individual assassins, and even more than organizations like ISIS. Terrorism is what fear does to us; it is what makes individuals attack the country they grew up in and the people with whom they live. We must do more than fight, for that is what terrorism expects and wants us to do. We need to find a common purpose that unites us on a basis of hope and aspirations.

In his speech Renzi gave an idea of what such a purpose could look like: “For every euro invested in security,” he said, “we need a euro to invest in education. For every euro invested in police we need a euro invested in the urbanistic model of cities in Europe. For every euro invested in cyber technology we need one euro invested in theater, in sports, in museums. Because it is exactly our culture, the target of terrorists.” Focusing on protecting culture is part of the answer, but we also need to open up this culture to new members. More welcoming and tolerant societies can enhance integration to avoid the alienation of immigrant populations in isolated areas. It can help prevent homegrown terrorism.

More importantly, however, focusing on the improvement of positive characteristics in our societies instead of on negative influences will help making societies more resilient. A society like this will be better able to put up with terrorism by concentrating on other goals. These goals can be found in education, culture, and tolerance, making for a self-reinforcing process that stands against terrorism and fear. While this will not necessarily prevent people from becoming terrorists (as most of the recent assassins were highly educated), it can do something for our societies.

Terrorist attacks will always hurt us by taking away loved ones and hurting many others. There is no doubt that the protection of the people is incredibly important, but it cannot be our only action. In fact, not focusing on common enemies may actually help fight it. As long as we do not let the fight for security define who we are, we will stay independent, strong, and full of hope. It is because of this that we need to unite around a common goal. A common goal can be a variety of visions, and, as long as it aims to aid and advance the population rather than feed into its fear, it will be an effective weapon against terrorism.

Image Source: Flickr/soldiersmediacenter

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