We Owe It to the Victims of the Latest Bombing Tragedy in Turkey to Ask Why These Attacks Happened
Tragedies are tragedies. Ordinary people stand at the Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, Turkey. Guns and bombs shatter their lives in an instant. There can be no justification for such violence. It is dangerously random and wicked. Whatever frustrations produce the assailants, nothing could possibly draw a straight line from those grievances and the misfortunes they produce. Each of these attacks comes with a list of names of the dead – casualty lists that multiply from one end of the planet to the other. Biographies of the dead will mount our Facebook pages and stand sentinel in newspapers. We will meet people we did not know and try to make sense of the lives they have lost. But none of this is adequate to the catastrophic losses faced by their families. When someone is ill, there is time to prepare for that person’s death. When these kinds of incidents take place, there is no preparation. They come in a flash and seize the living into the land of the dead. It is bewildering and purposeless.
States will fly flags at half-mast, and if the people are worthy, then social media profiles will carry these flags as well. Nationalism of the worst kind cloaks itself in these tragedies. All kinds of older plots and plans are hastened onto the table – to make quick use of the grief to push ahead with whatever schemes the power elites had in mind already. The war on Iraq, for instance, as a consequence of 9/11 is only the most spectacular instance of such perfidy. What Turkey’s government will do is to be seen. Already Turkey’s President - Recep Tayyip ErdoÄŸan - no champion of democracy – has called for this attack to be a “turning point for the united fight against terrorism.” There have been too many turning points and none of them have actually been able to turn anything against either terrorism or the roots of terrorism. ErdoÄŸan’s government hastily put the brakes on social media, as they do after every such incident. It says a great deal that the language of freedom and liberty will be heard from a government that has cracked down on all manner of dissent – from opposition politicians, journalists, the judiciary and entire ethnic groups (such as the Kurds). Such events of violence provide the political manifestations of the worst kind of nationalism with the excuse to do insufferable things.
It is bad taste to wonder why terrorists do what they do. Such a discussion often sounds like the attempt to justify their actions. But failure to ask the questions of who did the attack and why did the attack take place slips us into the miasma of uncertainty. Terrorism is about the creation of fear – which is produced by the randomness of the violence and then the fear mongering of the state’s response. Refusal to ask the serious questions about the social history of terrorist groups allows for the terror to travel like quicksilver through society and it allows the state to stand apart from having to acknowledge the production of terrorism in our society.
Problems with the Neighbors
Clarity will be hard to find. Turkey’s new prime minister – Binali Yildirim – said that the signs point to ISIS. He also said – importantly – that it is “noteworthy that this heinous terror attack took place at a time when Turkey successfully fights separatist terror and enters a period of normalization with our neighbors.” Discussion about ISIS is now common. It is where the finger points every time there is such an attack. But Yildirim made other claims – about the Turkish war on Kurdish aspiration (what he called “separatist terror”) and the deals cut between the Turkish government and Israel as well as Russia this week. He has said that there might be a connection between these events. No such confirmation is possible. But yet, this is a worthwhile line of inquiry. Such violent acts do not happen for no reason.
The first question, of course, is who did the attack. Speculation points towards ISIS – although ISIS has been loath to accept responsibility for attacks in Turkey. As a Turkish friend says, “ISIS does not want to abuse Turkish hospitality.” She notes a Turkish saying - AteÅŸ almaya gelmek – just coming over for a light, which is a phrase use to describe guests who overstay their welcome. Has Turkey’s policy vis-a-vis ISIS become a hindrance? This attack took place on the second anniversary of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s declaration of a Caliphate (although this is in the Gregorian calendar, while ISIS generally uses the Hijri calendar – although ISIS is not without its sense of drama). Does this attack have anything to do with that? Others say that this attack is in response to the Turkish government’s rapprochement with Israel or with Russia – as Yildirim intimated. These are rumors, each one feeding off the next and producing less light and more heat. Even when someone speaks on behalf of the attackers, nothing will be clarified. Mystery will continue to surround these events – partly because states are averse to being honest about the production of these enemies.
Turkey is in turmoil. The Syrian adventure has backfired against the government of ErdoÄŸan and his AKP. Expectations that the government of Bashar al-Assad would collapse have had to be recalibrated. ErdoÄŸan expected to have a friendly government in Damascus by now, perhaps one led by his fraternal Muslim Brotherhood. That has not come to be. Instead, Turkish proxies in Syria have been battered by the Assad regime, backed by Iran and Russia. Turkmen groups along the border have seen their positions weaken, which is why – last November – Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet that had been targeting the Sultan Abdulhamid Brigade, a close ally of Turkey. It is a sign of the weakness of Ankara that ErdoÄŸan had to make amends with Russia this week.
Turkey’s Syria policy also upended the peace process between the government of ErdoÄŸan and the Kurdish factions (particularly the PKK). Open war has begun again by the Turkish military against PKK positions in the country’s southeast and in Iraq. Withdrawal of basic democratic provisions in the southeast has led the region to be under effective curfew. ErdoÄŸan’s harsh attitude toward the left-Kurdish HDP party and toward journalists has been inflamed by this war, which has dented the self-image of ErdoÄŸan and his AKP as democratic Islamists. Turkey’s war against the Kurds, of course, is a war that helps ISIS – one of the great contradictions for Western planners in the region as I detail in my new book The Death of the Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution. Their ally here – Turkey – is bombing the Kurds, who are some of the most effective fighters against ISIS. Exit from this fiasco is looking harder as each day goes by. There is no table being set for a new round of talks between Ankara and the Kurdish leadership. ErdoÄŸan, like Sri Lanka’s Mahinda Rajapaksa, thinks he can win a total victory. It is as delusional a view as the one that set ErdoÄŸan against Assad in the first place.
Turkish people can be proud of the security services that hastily tried to capture the attackers. Video shows them chasing these dangerous fighters through the airport. It is also to the credit of Turkey that the Ataturk airport opened only hours after the attack (it took the Brussels airport, which sustained major structural damage, two weeks to reopen).
“Living is no laughing matter,” wrote the great Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet. “You must live with great seriousness....
I mean, you must take living so seriously
that even at seventy, for example, you'll plant olive trees--
and not for your children, either,
but because although you fear death you don’t believe it,
because living, I mean, weighs heavier.