The State in the “Age of Terror”

In recent years, it has become fashionable in the field of international relations to argue that “the state” is in danger of falling into irrelevance as international organizations (IOs) like the United Nations and transnational groups like al Qaeda come to dominate international politics. I have always found these arguments unconvincing. The state is and is likely to remain the most important actor in international politics for the foreseeable future. (When scholars in international relations talk about “states” they are usually referring to what we would call “countries,” so, France, the United States, Syria, and Rwanda are all “states” in these terms. The term “the state” can also refer to the specific apparatuses of power that enable a state to exercise control—so, “the French state” could include the military, the bureaucracy, the legislature, etc., depending on the context.)

The recent terror attacks in Paris highlight not the growing power of transnational terrorist groups but the continued prominence of states. How can that be? You ask. Haven’t I been reading everywhere that these attacks signal an alarming and sophisticated shift in strategy by groups like IS? Isn’t life as we know it in western states more vulnerable than ever?

First: I don’t think that the attacks signal a major strategic shift for IS. For this to be true, there would have to be evidence that the group is reallocating a major amount of resources and personnel to attack western targets. IS still asserts and behaves as if its primary goal is to control territory and establish its own system of government (or state, if you will) in Iraq and Syria.

Second, and this is related to the first point: These attacks don’t strike me as particularly sophisticated or resource-intensive. From what we know, small groups of attackers conducted suicide bombings at the Stade de France, committed shootings at several locations around Paris, and trapped individuals inside the Bataclan theater while armed with automatic weapons and more bombs. The vast majority of the civilian casualties were sustained in the Bataclan theater, which is not surprising: the terrorists trapped a large number of people in a confined space and were armed with automatic weapons. The fact of the matter is that we now live in a world awash with relatively low-tech but effective automatic weapons (AK-47s), the result of decades of military aid that the United States and others have been funneling to so-called allies.

To me, what the attacks most closely resembled were the kind of mass shooting events that have sadly (ridiculously!) become relatively commonplace in the United States. (“But unlike IS terrorists, those people aren’t trying to destroy our way of life!” you say? Excuse me, but how are shootings at movie theaters and women’s health clinics and civil rights protests NOT attacks on the American way of life? And yet in the wake of those tragedies CNN does not go to DEFCON 1 and convince you that you are about to be assassinated by the angry bearded guy holed up down the block.) The point here is not to devolve into a complicated discussion about the terrorists’ tactics but to point out that these were not very sophisticated attacks. Yes, they were carried out in a short time frame, but that was not because a series of explosive devices was pre-set to detonate at the same time—luckily a much more difficult feat to pull off and one that would have signaled a higher level of planning and coordination.

What we have seen in the wake of the attacks, however, is the assertion of the state.  Within days, the French state had located multiple suspects, conducted more than a hundred raids, and tracked dozens of individuals into neighboring countries. That is the kind of sophisticated surveillance and coordinated application of violence that a state, and only a state, can manage at this time. (You may wonder why the state failed to pick up on the attacks in advance—an important question, but it may be a long time before we have a good answer to this.) The Belgian state told its people to stay in their homes for days as they hunted down additional suspects, and these people complied. Rightly or wrongly, the people of western Europe did not turn to the European Union (EU) but to their own states to demand protection. Suddenly, state borders began to matter a lot more than the doctrines of free trade and free transit that the EU has worked to implement. Even in the United States, there have been calls to ban immigration, and particularly to shut out Syrian refugees.

This does not imply that the state is the only actor in international politics, that states are infallible, or that the exercise of state power is always justifiable on moral or ethical grounds. But I do think it is important to recognize that the attacks on Paris did not threaten the survival of the French state, just as the attacks of September 11, 2001, did not bring down the United States. For most states, and particularly for states in the wealthy western world, terrorism simply does not threaten the survival of the state, period. After terror attacks, the most significant erosions to the American way of life that we have endured are the ones we have inflicted on ourselves, like the Patriot Act or the prison at Guantanamo Bay. For better or worse, the state is here to stay.