Editorial, 30 julio 2016 / THE GUARDIAN
Pope Francis is a thoughtful man whose views should be taken seriously. So his unusually dramatic declaration last week that the world is at war deserves closer scrutiny. The pope was responding to the shocking murder in Normandy of a Catholic priest, Father Jacques Hamel, by two French-born Isis recruits and two earlier Islamist attacks in Germany. But his remarks raised wider questions reaching far beyond the immediate struggle against random acts of terrorism.
“The word we hear a lot is insecurity, but the real word is war,” the pope said. “We must not be afraid to say the truth, the world is at war because it has lost peace.” Continuing, he sought to clarify what he meant. “When I speak of war, I speak of wars over interests, money, resources, not religion. All religions want peace; it’s the others who want war.”
Is Francis right? Is the world at war? Looking at recent events, including the Bastille Day atrocity in Nice, a string of lesser attacks in German cities and, for example, the ongoing, merciless bombardment of 300,000 people trapped in what remains of Aleppo, it is tempting to answer with a heartfelt “Yes”. Day after day, our televisions, radios, mobiles and newspapers deliver awful tidings of yet more egregious examples of man’s inhumanity to man.
Yet our perspective is skewed. Figures compiled by the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database show that, in western Europe, the number of civilians killed as a result of terrorist acts has fallen sharply in recent years from peaks in the 1970s and 1980s. Even then, at the height of IRA, Basque separatist, Red Brigades, Baader-Meinhof and PLO activity, the annual toll numbered a few hundred. Current fatality levels in Europe are significantly lower, despite the rise of Isis.
In point of fact, the vast majority of civilian deaths from terrorism in 2015 – 74% – were confined to five countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Syria and Pakistan. Or looked at another way, between 1969 and 2009, there were 38,345 terrorist incidents around the world. Of these, 2,981 were directed against the US, while the remaining 92% were directed at other, mostly poor nations. The worst single atrocity since 9/11 took place this month in Baghdad, where Isis bombs killed hundreds.
If the pope’s claim about a world at war is set against a broader measure of armed conflicts, similar doubts arise. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, about 167,000 people died in armed conflicts in 2015, historically far fewer than in the post-colonial and Cold War periods of the last century. This figure is itself distorted by Syria, which accounted for 55,000 of the total. Again, a handful of countries accounted for most of the remaining deaths, notably Nigeria, Afghanistan and Mexico.
These figures suggest three things: that, overall, worldwide levels of organised state against state, internal state and non-state (terrorist) violence have significantly declined over the past 50 years; that the conflicts that persist are mostly confined to a diminishing number of countries or regions, not in Europe or the US; and that most parts of the world are enjoying an unprecedented period of prolonged peace. The big picture, as delineated by academics such as Harvard’s Steven Pinker, is not one of a “world at war”, but of a world that may, slowly, be learning to deal with problems by non-violent means.
Such conclusions plainly fly in the face of popular, western perceptions of heightened physical threat, as enunciated by the pope. This may be because violence, particularly Islamist terrorism, is suddenly much more in evidence on our own doorsteps. It may be because, thanks to mass media and the internet age, ordinary citizens are more aware now of global contemporary events than at any time in human history. The result is an exaggerated, disproportionate sense of the dangers presented by our own times. This may also stem from woeful, collective ignorance of recent and not so recent history.
But this disconnect between the objective reality of present-day conflict, the emotions and fears surrounding it and the language and terminology used to describe it, may be deeper rooted. As Francis suggested, the shared conception that we are living in a time of war arises from conflicts in many other dimensions, such as the “war” over disappearing natural resources and environmental protection, the “wars” on poverty, on drugs and on preventable disease, or the “war” between business interests, represented by global corporations and international capitalism and the common people’s recurring aspirations, now ever harder to crush or deny, for fair, equal and just societies based on human rights, shared responsibilities and agreed laws.
Maybe Francis was also pointing, opaquely, to what might be termed a war of minds, a global war of ideas, one that rages ever more fiercely in a 21st century whose dawn, supposedly, marked the beginning of a post-ideological age but that now grows desperate (and violent) in its search for belief, certainty, conviction and truth.
How else to account for nationalists, populists, demagogues, charlatans and rogues from Trump Towers to Vienna’s far-right Freedom party to France’s Front National to Greece’s Golden Dawn, which peddle absolutist solutions, perverse panaceas and divisive, separatist slogans with such evident, partisan support?
And how else to interpret the religious rift, or fitna, within Islam between Sunni and Shia, and between Islam and the west, if not in terms of a battle of dogma and belief? The pope may be correct that this is not a war of religions, certainly not a war led by established religious leaders such as himself. But to claim that the current, intensifying global battle for new, viable credos for the new century is not, in part, a religious and spiritual struggle, too, is surely delusional.
Thomas Hobbes believed man’s natural, eternal state was “warre”. The aim and duty of every human society before and since has been to prove him wrong – and to resurrect Francis’s “lost peace”.