Beechert: Europe's Border-Free Folly
Islamic terrorism has reared its ugly head once again, and indeed in spectacular fashion. The Nov. 13 attacks in Paris — the heart of Europe, a jewel of art and culture and a birthplace of modern democracy — gave the world a startling and unambiguous wake-up call. The Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, and its accomplices, who seek to destroy all that Westerners hold dear, will not be content to lead the Middle East into ruin. They want to and have the capacity to take the fight to us, knowing full well that the relative complacency of the United States and Europe has made them easy targets. The failure of Western governments to decisively eradicate the nascent infestation of ISIS years ago — and their idiotic policy of “containment” that followed — have come home to roost.
One must hope, in light of the horror of recent events, that the West’s response this time around will not be similar to what it has done after past attacks on Western soil. Specifically, it would be a grave mistake if — after the requisite period of mourning, public outrage and maybe a few airstrikes — the terror in Paris slowly slips into the back of the public consciousness while the root of the problem continues to fester. European governments in particular, with the partial exception of the United Kingdom, have in their gross negligence quietly crossed their fingers in hopes that radical Islam will simply go away. As tragedies in Paris have proven twice this year, this expectation is unrealistic. In the absence of either a miracle or a change in policy, attacks will continue to happen in the coming years, and likely with increasing frequency.
Perhaps the most frustrating part of the present situation is that there is no one single policy change that would shield the West from the threat of Islamic terrorism. To be sure, more aggressive action against ISIS was needed in 2014 as the group was conquering more territory in Iraq and Syria, but that ship has long sailed. Intervention at this point in time — that is, a ground assault — might be a catastrophic failure now that ISIS is so well entrenched, and politicians are rightly worried about risking the lives of soldiers for such a dangerous proposition. But there are still measures that can be taken on the home front to mitigate the threat of further attacks, and it would be foolish not to at least contemplate them.
By this, I mean border control. The U.S., by virtue of its geographic isolation, has always had sole responsibility for securing its own borders. Although this control is not particularly vigorous along either our northern or southern boundaries, it is not likely that in the post-9/11 era it would be easy for would-be jihadists to waltz over from Syria and start detonating bombs or shooting at civilians in restaurants. Europe, however, is another matter entirely. Thanks to the Schengen Agreement, which from 1995 abolished border checkpoints among 26 European countries, travelers can cross much of the continent without stopping for any security or identity checks. The checkpoints that do exist at the Schengen Area’s southeastern extreme — that is, the part closest to the Middle East — are generous to say the least, and the flood of refugees from Syria has challenged existing border security infrastructure. Before the Paris attacks, the few remaining realists in European governments must have quietly been wondering if it would be possible for terrorists to exploit the situation and wreak havoc. After this past weekend, the answer is obvious.
For many, the Schengen Area embodies the virtues of the European project — openness, freedom and multiculturalism. It has therefore been viewed as virtually untouchable. If border controls were reinstated, the thinking goes, the idea of Europe will have failed on principle. This is a dangerous fallacy. One can both believe in the promise of Europe and recognize the real threat posed by the rise of Islamic terrorism. If countries like France want to protect themselves, they would be remiss to rely on the abilities of overwhelmed foreign authorities to identify and halt infiltrators thousands of miles away. To continue to do so, admirable and true to ideals as that may be, is to flirt with disaster.