I’ve written much before about the start of World War One. The story of that day in Sarajevo that set in motion a series of events that would end in destruction, devastation, and a Europe changed forever has always been one that fascinated me. In part that fascination is from the sheer improbability of the assassination of Ferdinand by Princip and of how a single wrong turn by a confused chauffeur might set in motion a world war.
I’ve written less about the outbreak of World War Two, if only because it always seemed less interesting. The invasion of Poland by German forces was the straw that broke the camels back for the other European powers and the war began in proper shortly after the Fuhrer’s decision to invade Germany’s eastern neighbor.
What both of these conflicts share is a single date on which the war began. While there are some who argue that the assassination of the Archduke was not literally the outbreak of war or that WWII did not really get going before the Germans headed west, holding the position that there was a certain day on which these conflicts began, and that those days were 28 June 1914 and 1 September 1939, is not controversial.
I cannot say for certain, though, when the current world war began.
I know it didn’t start in Copenhagen on the weekend, either with the attempted murder of a cartoonist at a meeting about free speech and blasphemy or at a Danish synagogue shortly after.
I know it didn’t start in Paris at the offices of newspaper Charlie Hebdo where writers and artists were murdered for reasons no rational mind can justify. Nor did it start in a kosher supermarket in that same city where Jews who simply wanted to shop were murdered simply for being Jewish.
Neither the terrorist bombings that ripped through London’s public transport system in 2005 nor the horrific murder of Lee Rigby in that city marked the start of the current war.
The bombings in Madrid, the bombings in Indonesia, the attacks on schoolchildren in Beslan or fans of theatre in Moscow, even the events of 11 September 2001 and the horrendous loss of life that resulted from the efforts of just a few dozen fanatics – none of these seem to me to be the starting points of this current war.
Indeed, I’m not sure that I can put my finger on any one event in particular where it can be said with at least some level of certainty that THIS is the day the war between the secular pluralists and the religious fundamentalists, the famously tolerant and the murderously intolerant began.
Maybe there is no single day we can point to. Maybe the interconnections piled upon interconnections, the historical and social complexity of international politics precludes us from pointing to a single event. Maybe it makes no more sense to point to 9/11 than it does to point to the embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, or the Cold War politics that saw great powers arm and train temporary allies with little thought to their real feelings towards the West or the East.
I suspect that, unlike World War One and Two, I won’t be able to put a start date on this current global conflict. In that way, then, this current conflict is different from the previous world wars we have fought – but it is not the only way it is different.
Another key difference is that many in the West do not recognize this conflict as a global war. Indeed, they are happy to recognize it as anything but a global conflict between modernity and barbarism.
With a stunning regularity the strikes in this war are held to be random acts of violence. A siege in an Australian cafe in central Sydney is held to be nothing more than a “lone wolf”. The same is said of the murderers of Lee Rigby in Britain, a US Army Major who murdered his colleagues in cold blood at Fort Hood, the pair of terrorists who rampaged through the offices of Charlie Hebdo, and now again in Copenhagen.
I would not argue that these events are coordinated in the traditional sense: there is no general directing troops to attack in Paris on a Tuesday and Copenhagen on a Sunday, while overseeing the training of others who will strike in Rome, Berlin, or Prague in the future.
But it is undeniable that the perpetrators of these attacks are motivated by a common ideology, one that cannot be constrained by border patrols, passport checks, or citizenship tests. Lest we forget, the perpetrator in Denmark was Danish, the perpetrators in France were French, and the perpetrators in London were British citizens.
So we don’t call it a war. We call it a lack of education, a lack of integration, a lack of equality, a failure of multiculturalism – anything but a war.
The ‘leader of the free world’, US President Barack Obama, even goes as far as to suggest that the violent fanatics in Paris chose to attack the patrons of a Kosher supermarket simply out of random chance. At the time of writing there is no word from the President as to whether the attack on the synagogue in Copenhagen is going to be chalked up to random targeting of religious institutions, or whether someone on his staff will speak some sense to him and ask him to call it what it is: a war on the values that America and the American President should and normally do hold dear.
Another difference lies in the identity of the victims of this war-that-dare-not-speak-its-name: the vast majority of the victims of Islamist violence are Muslims. In January alone there were some 266 Islamist terrorist attacks that killed 3998 people and left another 2261 injured. Reading down the list of attacks and their locations shows how few of these attacks killed anyone in Europe or the wider West. In the same month as the Charlie Hebdo attacks in France there were dozens, even hundreds, of victims in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Egypt, Pakistan, Yemen, Lebanon, Nigeria and Libya. There were attacks in The Philippines, in India, and in Jordan, Mali, and Somalia. In almost all cases Muslims were the target of these terrorists, and Muslims were the usually nameless – at least to many in the West – victims.
And so we have a war without a specific start, that we will not call a war, and which targets Muslims in Iraq, Jews in Denmark, Coptic Christians in Egypt, and seemingly anyone else who disagrees with the radical ideology that underlies their hateful vision.
And one other things makes this war different to World War One and Two: we don’t yet have a resolution to this war.
In World War One we played out the battles until a continent had been ripped apart. In World War Two we ended the fight by dividing that same continent in two before unleashing the atomic bomb on the aggressors in East Asia.
I may not be able to put a date on the beginning of this war or explain fully why so many fail to regard it as such, but have no doubt that the end of this war will require its own equivalent to D-Day, its own parallel to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and its own long period of rebuilding after.