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“Some people are more equal than others.” That was the Orwellian lesson learned personally by retired general Roméo Dallaire from the world’s response to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

The Islamic State has killed vastly more fellow Muslims than Westerners. Many of its deeds have been against other Muslims, not Westerners, and have received little coverage. Two days before Paris, IS killed 43 people in Beirut. How many of us knew that? It has taken the Paris massacres to revive our indignation and fury against IS. Call it selective outrage.

IS and the war in Syria have created three million wretched refugees. But the richer world puts up fences, literally in some cases, to keep the vast majority of them out — even the victims of IS. But when Parisians are the victims, we are all French. This is an added reason why Canada must meet its goal of bringing in 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of the year.

What might have happened in Canada had the Paris attacks come a month earlier? Surely there’s a good chance that it would have led to another Conservative election victory. The Liberal red tide might well have been stopped in its tracks. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau might have retracted his promises to withdraw the six Canadian jet fighters from the war against IS and to amend Bill C-51, the anti-terrorism bill.

What would Stephen Harper have done? It would be uplifting to think that he would not have played politics with a terrorism attack that left hundreds dead and wounded. But then he would not have been Stephen Harper. A Conservative attack on Mr. Trudeau for being too weak — unready — for a dangerous world would have been irresistible. And, I’d guess, eminently successful. Fortunately, we’ll never know.

But what does Mr. Trudeau do now in the wake of Paris? There will be relentless pressure on him from many sides not just to maintain Canadian fighters in Iraq but to augment Canada’s contribution. My bet is, first, that he will soon find it impossible to resist and that Canada will shortly be in the middle of another futile Middle East war. And second, that most Canadians will applaud the decision. I devoutly hope I’m wrong.

History teaches us some things sometimes, and one is that Western military intervention in Arab and Muslim lands has almost never achieved its declared goal. This has been true in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria, and against the Islamic State. We will surely kill a lot of Arabs and/or Muslims. But to what end? Whatever success we now claim we have achieved is the result of significantly diminishing, often ignoring, the aims we once had for intervention.

Reporting from the Middle East in the latest London Review of Books, journalist Patrick Cockburn tells us that as of October the U.S.-led coalition, but mainly the United States itself, has carried out 7,323 air strikes in Iraq and Syria against IS and its allies, “but the campaign has demonstrably failed to contain IS.” According to Mr. Cockburn, an attempt by Washington to exaggerate the success of its mission led in July to “fifty analysts working for U.S. Central Command to sign a protest against the official distortion of what was happening on the battlefield.”

The fact is, we still understand precious little about how these Middle East countries and these extremist groups operate. The Sunni-Shia schism complicates everything. Sure, it would be a blessing if the anti-IS coalition could make the next Paris impossible. But why should we think we can make that happen, just because we’re now really, really mad? We haven’t known how to stop IS before this past weekend. Are we now finally going to introduce 150,000 American, Canadian, French and British boots on the ground in the Middle East? That would just be another recruitment gift to IS. It would certainly do nothing to prevent the next IS atrocity.

The mess in the Middle East is not going to be solved in any war that centrally involves the West. We need less war and more peace, less bombing and more talking. That’s what U.S. President Barack Obama has finally understood, even if it’s proving far more difficult than he anticipated. But the talks now going on in Vienna among all the main actors is the greatest cause for hope we’ve had for years.

As for amending Mr. Harper’s ferocious Bill C-51, as the Liberals have vowed, nothing has changed. The best experts told us that we had already given our security people enough leeway to prevent any serious attack in Canada. They don’t need the extra powers provided by C-51, which also distort the right balance between our rights and our security. Last week, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the Mounties had all the powers they needed to keep us safe. This week, they still do.

After all, look at France. Despite a remorseless intelligence service with wide powers, it stopped neither Charlie Hebdo in January nor Bataclan on Friday. It’s pretty disconcerting, actually. It seems that French security officials were taken by surprise in both instances. They had the tools to do their jobs properly. Yet somehow they didn’t. We must all learn why they failed.

Paris was horrific. So was Beirut and every other IS outrage. But a game-changer? Only if they remind us that all humans are equal and that war is rarely the way to stop killing.

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Image: Flickr/Moyan Brenn

This article originally appeared in The Globe and Mail.


Gerry Caplan

Gerald Caplan has an MA in Canadian history and a Ph.D. in African history from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. He is an author, teacher, media commentator,...