Don’t panic. The terrorists are not coming to get us.
That’s the simple message at the heart of Gwynne Dyer’s latest book, Don’t Panic: ISIS, Terror and Today’s Middle East. But for some, it may not be an easy pill to swallow.
After the Paris attacks last November, U.S. President Barack Obama called the bombings and mass shootings “an attack on all of humanity and the universal values that we share.”
It’s an oft-repeated refrain. In a speech last December, for instance, Yukon Senator Dan Lang claimed that “radical Islamists have declared war on our democratic values.”
But that’s just not true, according to Dyer, who will be speaking at the Yukon Arts Centre on Thursday. Dyer is a columnist and military historian who has followed events in the Middle East for about 50 years.
He argues that occasional terrorist attacks are simply “part of the cost of doing business in the 21st century.”
And when they happen, he says, we should do as little as possible in response.
“Don’t allow yourself to believe that this is the most important thing happening in the world today,” he told the News. “It’s not even the tenth most important thing happening. It gets pumped up into a phenomenon much larger than it really is.”
And he believes the last thing we should do is send troops to fight ISIS on the ground.
Dyer’s book focuses on the last 15 years of conflict in the Middle East, starting with the 9/11 attacks. At the time, he argues, Osama bin Laden wanted America to invade the Middle East, figuring that would attract some Arab Muslims to Islamist groups like al-Qaeda. After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, he got exactly what he wanted.
Dyer then traces links between the Iraqi insurgency, the Syrian civil war and the establishment of ISIS in early 2013.
ISIS, he claims, is a monster the West helped to create. But there’s not much we can do to make it go away.
“I don’t want to abandon the Arabs to a fate worse than death, so to speak,” he said, “but it’s not really our fight. And although we bear a large responsibility for what went wrong, we can’t put it right by going in with lots of troops now.”
And for us in the West, ISIS is not the existential threat so many political leaders make it out to be, he said.
“If Islamic State disappeared tomorrow, kidnapped by intergalactic pirates or something, the terrorism wouldn’t stop. … It was happening already anyway, it’ll go on happening even if Islamic State vanishes, but it’s low-grade stuff – it is not threatening our existence. It is a huge nuisance, but you know, ordinary life goes on. Your chances of being killed by terrorists are about the same as your risk of drowning in the bath.”
He argues, too, that ISIS doesn’t have much incentive to attack the West anymore. Now that it’s established a base and a large group of followers, it doesn’t need the U.S. to invade and help radicalize more people.
“Islamic State is in power. They don’t need us to invade. In fact, on the whole, they’d rather we didn’t. If they want to get the state on firm foundations, they don’t need an invasion.”
Attacks like the one in Paris are largely a means of attracting more volunteers to ISIS and away from rival organizations like al-Qaeda, he said.
Still, Dyer isn’t exactly saying we should do nothing to stop ISIS – just that we shouldn’t put boots on the ground to fight.
He does believe air strikes may help prevent Islamic State from expanding, though he’s not sure of it. But since the West helped create this situation, he said, this is one thing we can do to try and fix it.
As for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s plan to withdraw Canada’s fighter jets from the fight against ISIS this year, Dyer basically shrugs his shoulders, suggesting Canada’s contribution isn’t big enough to make a difference. “They’re not going to notice when we bring the planes home, frankly.”
Of course, this leaves us with an important question: if we do nothing, or very little, then what becomes of ISIS?
Dyer believes it’s possible ISIS could take over Syria, if the regime of Bashar al-Assad fails, though he says a ceasefire is also possible.
Regardless, he doesn’t foresee Islamic State extending much beyond that.
“I don’t think that they’re going to sweep through the Arab world and we’ll be facing 300 million people and a vast Islamic State stretching from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean,” he said. “Don’t think so.”
Truth is, Dyer doesn’t give us a very flattering mirror to hold up to ourselves. His assumption is that we’re only panicking about ISIS because of the threat to ourselves, not out of any altruistic concern for people in the Middle East.
If we can just accept that terrorist attacks in the West are rare, and that they probably won’t affect us, then we’ll be less likely to intervene in a crisis that isn’t ours to fix.
Dyer knows that may sound callous. But to that, he quotes Herman Kahn, who performed cold-blooded calculations of the number of deaths likely to be caused by nuclear war in the 1950s: “Would you prefer a nice warm mistake?”
Oh, and as to what we should be panicking about, Dyer has his answer ready.
“Climate change. That’s the big threat. That’s worth spending money and staying awake at nights about.”
Dyer will be speaking at the Yukon Arts Centre at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 4. A discussion will follow the lecture. Tickets are $25 ($10 for students) and are available at the centre or from www.yukontickets.com.
Contact Maura Forrest at