by Larry Smith
As the patriotic strains of the Marseillaise drifted over Paris following the recent terror attacks, social media around the world erupted with gushers of hate, anger, sorrow and solidarity.
We were no exception. Many Bahamians superimposed the French tricolour over their Facebook profile picture in a show of sympathy, while others hurled threats, insults and angry condemnations - all wrapped up in dire warnings against Syrian refugees.
The expression of solidarity with the French was a major theme on social media immediately after the attacks. But this soon degenerated into a racial controversy. Some were upset because, in their view, the same kind of attention had not been given to terrorism in non-Western countries like Kenya, Nigeria or Lebanon.
Just before the Paris attacks, a pair of Isis suicide bombers had struck Beirut, killing 43 people and wounding 239. Last April, Islamist gunmen stormed a college campus in Kenya, killing 148 and injuring 79. And in January the brutal Boko Haram Islamist group torched an entire town in Nigeria.
Here are two examples of the objections raised on social media:
“Why did you choose to post this (French) flag, but not these (African and Middle Eastern) flags. Victims from these other countries are not white enough?”
“It is not Paris we should pray for. It is the world in which Beirut, reeling from bombings two days before, is not covered in the press.”
In fact, the Beirut bombings - and many others around the world - were widely covered by Western media, although many readers and viewers may have ignored the reports.
As former Washington Post journalist Max Fisher put it: “Unless the victims are either children or Christian, I have never really succeeded in getting readers to care about such bombings that happen outside of the Western world... it forces us to ask what our own role might be in the world's disproportionate care and concern for one country over another.”
Putin is the Man
Another common thread on social media these days - one that is rich with irony - is the current view of the American right wing (and their followers in the Bahamas) that Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin is some kind of hero.
If you follow the posts on Facebook, this feeling intensified after Putin - who was a KGB agent during the Cold War - issued muscular threats to annihilate the Isis terrorists.
One such threat ("To forgive the terrorists is up to God, but to send them to Him is up to me.”) was actually a quote from a 2004 movie starring Denzel Washington called Man on Fire. But other reported threats were genuine enough, although it is a mystery to me how execution can be seen as an effective deterrent for suicide attackers.
“We will find them anywhere on the planet and punish them,” Putin blustered about the terrorists who are believed to have placed a bomb on a Russian airliner. The Russians also put up a $50 million bounty for the bombers.
Rewards like this are on offer by the US for a whole range of terrorists, from Osama bin Laden’s successor to Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. There are dozens more around the world with various prices on their head. In fact, Somali militants even put a bounty on Barack Obama.
Obama is a Child
A related theme on social media after the Paris attacks was that the US president is either too weak or too compromised to deal with Isis. This is despite the fact that a couple dozen terrorist leaders have been killed under his watch - from bin Laden down - and more than 6,000 air strikes have been conducted by the US military against Isis targets in Syria and Iraq over the past year.
Apparently, a Russian dictator declaring he will hunt down terrorists while launching air strikes in Syria is much tougher and more effective than a bi-iracial lawyer in the White House doing the same thing. It appears that more war is the critics’ sole objective - which only serves to play into the hands of the terrorists.
Many Bahamians re-posted comments by US Republican leaders which confirmed this. These politicians responded to the Paris attacks with cynical attempts to promote fear and loathing amongst Americans in order to push the country further into war.
Marco Rubio called for a “civilizational war against radical Islam.” Jeb Bush said the attacks were part of "an organized effort to destroy Western civilization.” And Ted Cruz claimed the only effective deterrent was military action that tolerated large numbers of civilian casualties.
More War Not Jaw Jaw
So far, the US has been reluctant to get directly involved in the very complicated Syrian civil war for very good reasons. But an air campaign was launched against Isis last year after the beheadings of two American hostages outraged public opinion. This was done under the broad authority to combat terrorism that Congress gave the Bush administration in 2001.
The president later asked Congress to authorise more military action in Syria without committing to any long-term involvement. But Republican leaders refused to act. Now they claim the administration isn't doing enough. It makes no sense unless we assume they are simply warmongering while trying to avoid any responsibility.
Even some Democratic Party spokesmen are now chiming in. But the question of more war is a moot point in a region which is already in chaos and where large-scale ground operations are unrealistic.
As Trevor Thrall pointed out in the Atlantic Magazine recently, “US military action can topple governments, destroy buildings, and kill people, (but) it cannot defeat ideas or prevent the spread of extremism and the mobilization of extremist groups.”
Demonizing an Entire People
Meanwhile, leading Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump focused his attention on the home front - suggesting that mosques should be closed and Muslims required to register with the state and carry identification marking their religious beliefs.
This kind of largely unchallenged rhetoric - calling for measures similar to those the Nazis enforced on Jews in the 1930s - is an alarming sign. Presidential candidates (not to mention Facebook posters) now feel able to demonise 1. 7 billion people - no matter where they live, who they are, or what they do - because of the actions of a fringe group of extremists.
The Syrian Fifth Column
But the freakout on social media over Syrian refugees was even more appalling. It appears that every Syrian is now considered a terrorist, although none of the Paris attackers were refugees. Here are some basic facts surrounding the subject, which many posters seem to overlook:
Syria is the worst humanitarian disaster since World War Two. A quarter million people have been killed, including 12,000 children. Healthcare, education and other infrastructure have been destroyed and the economy is shattered. There are now over four million Syrian refugees; the vast majority living in overcrowded camps in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan.
More recently, hundreds of thousands have begun crossing the Mediterranean to seek asylum in Europe. Officially, both the European Union and the US have responded by raising their admission quotas, but the Paris attacks ignited understandable fears that terrorists may be hiding among the refugees.
The reality is that the US has resettled 748,000 refugees from around the world since September 11, 2001. And within that population, only three people have been arrested for activities related to terrorism, with none of them even close to executing an attack. In fact, non-refugees have carried out all foreign terrorist attacks in the US over the past 35 years.
To enter the US, refugees must endure a screening process that takes up to two years - the regular visa process requires far less effort. And it should be noted that America has taken in over 80,000 Iraqi refugees since 2007, who come from the actual country where Isis formed – none of whom, to the public’s knowledge, have committed any act of terrorism.
But I guess we have to accept the fact that large-scale immigration of any kind can cause tension and hostility - including Haitian migrants to the Bahamas, who are often disparaged although they usually have no difficulty finding Bahamians willing to employ them either legally or illegally.
In a 1939 poll recirculated widely on social media, more than three out of five Americans opposed the resettlement of 10,000 Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany. And most often the concerns about migrants have been racial, economic or cultural. The terrorism-fueled fears of Syrian resettlement is something new.
Partly it is a result of the scale of the crisis, which has placed pressure on smaller EU countries, where there is insufficient infrastructure to cope with the thousands of people arriving. But mostly it is fear - precisely the reaction Isis wants in order to provoke rejection, racism, hysteria, and extremism, which fuels their recruiting efforts.
As Italian journalist Roberto Savio wrote recently, “This is a war in which many foreign powers are ready to fight to the last Syrian. And now comes the American Congress, which equates being Syrian with being a terrorist."
As John Oliver commented on his satirical TV show Last Week Tonight, “There was only one time in American history when the fear of refugees wiping everyone out did actually come true - and we’ll be celebrating it around the table on Thursday."
Muslims are Indifferent to Terrorism
Finally, there is the constant meme that most Muslims are indifferent to terrorist attacks by groups like Isis. Whenever a radical Islamist commits a terrorist attack, we all ask: “Why aren’t Muslims condemning this?”
In fact, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, like countless other Muslim organizations around the world, strongly condemns terrorism whenever incidents occur. In 2014, CAIR even signed on to an open letter to Isis, written by 120 Muslim scholars, that deconstructed their obscure radical theology.
In comparison, attacks by white supremacists and right-wing groups get little attention. Most will struggle to remember the shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin when a man associated with neo-Nazi groups killed six people in 2012.
The bottom line is that if we want to be amateur purveyors of news and opinion on Facebook or Twitter, the least we can do is check a few facts now and then and apply our brains - particularly when the issue involves matters of life and death.