Eighteen-year-old Hanna Nijenhuis wrote her final term paper at her Dutch high school on why the United States managed to win two world wars yet has failed in smaller conflicts. These days, Hanna studies German in Berlin. Her father, Hans Nijenhuis, is opinion editor of the respected Dutch daily newspaper NRC Handelsblad. Last Monday night, they had the following chat on WhatsApp.
Hanna: Aren’t you guys getting sick of all those French flags on Facebook? And all that #prayforparis? The whole Internet is red, white and blue.
Hans: What do you mean? It’s a display of solidarity.
Hanna: Solidarity’s good, but why is it only #prayforparis? Two days before Paris, a bunch of people died in attacks in Beirut. But I’m not seeing Lebanese flags anywhere. I bet you don’t even know what the Lebanese flag looks like. And yet you’re putting pictures of the French victims in the papers, and heroic stories about the survivors. I haven’t seen any stories about any Lebanese people.
Hans: Paris is closer to us. The city stands for values we share, for our way of life. Remember how much you loved it when we went there a few years ago? All the sidewalk cafés, the liveliness.
"I changed my profile photo to the Syrian flag. I don’t want to only support France"
Hanna: OK, I get what you’re saying. But people in Lebanon want to live too, you know. How they live their lives doesn’t matter, does it? Do you even know what values they stand for? There are fathers and daughters in Lebanon too – don’t you sympathize with them? The Western media have a Western gaze. And you guys act like it’s the whole truth. Like the West is all that matters. I changed my profile photo to the Syrian flag. I don’t want to only support France.
Hans: But we are supporting Syria! We’ve taken in tens of thousands of refugees. And we’re bombing the Islamic State (IS). Roger Cohen , an influential columnist, says we have to act on the international sense of outrage and destroy IS once and for all. François Hollande and Mark Rutte are calling it a war.
Hanna: You read columnists, I have my term paper. Hang on, I’ll go get it. Meanwhile, explain what you mean by war.
Hans: More air strikes, possibly ground troops. In the end, IS is mostly thugs with guns. They can be eliminated.
Hanna: So, bombing. That means “collateral damage,” in the form of the lives of innocent people, as I wrote in my paper – fathers and daughters who don’t have or want anything to do with IS.
Hans: It’s a shame, but IS is causing the loss of innocent lives too!
Hanna: And that’s exactly why we hate them so much. If we bomb them, we’re doing the same thing. Don’t we want to be better than that? And even if you look at it in a less principled way, is all this military action doing any good? We went to Afghanistan and Iraq to eliminate the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, but that’s not what people there saw. They saw Western soldiers on the streets who didn’t belong there. And it drove them toward the terrorists. I get that. I mean, how would you like it if the Iraqis suddenly started marching through our streets? The terrorists are taking advantage of that feeling. They’re presenting themselves as the good guys: Let’s fight together against the invaders with their alien Western ways!
Hanna: It’s classic Al-Qaeda, Dad. Provoke the West, so those countries will make their way to Muslim territory, and support for the terrorists will only increase. It’s in one of the books I used, The Accidental Guerrilla , by David Kilcullen. You should read it.
Hans: Girls are going to school again in Afghanistan. And who knows how many more victims Saddam would have killed?
Hanna: Wake up, Dad! America’s “war on terror” after 9/11 caused the U.S. a lot more damage than the attacks themselves. Locking people up without trial in Guantánamo Bay, waterboarding, drone attacks on civilians, instability in Iraq that allowed IS to establish itself there. And just for you, since I know you like to put things in economic terms: the attacks on the Twin Towers cost the terrorists an estimated $500,000. The war on terror has already cost America more than $700 billion. They’re bleeding you dry, Dad.
"And just for you, since I know you like to put things in economic terms: ...the war on terror has already cost America more than $700 billion"
Hans: So what do you suggest?
Hanna: Go after the guilty parties. Try them and punish them. But don’t declare war on countries, people or religions who didn’t commit the attacks.
Hans: The French are doing their best. Strict border checks have been put in place. They’re combing the Molenbeek area of Brussels.
Hanna: I can just picture it. They’ll be waving through white guys in Audis, but anybody with dark skin is suspicious and subject to search. Why “comb” a neighborhood anyway? Not everybody who lives there is an accessory. This kind of thing will only lead to new enemies, frustration, exclusion – all sources of radicalization.
Hans: Maybe we should equip young Syrian men fleeing to Europe with uniforms and weapons so they can fight IS. Then we’ll know who’s a real refugee and who’s a fortune seeker. Refugees will want to help liberate their country, won’t they? Think of the Dutch who fled to London during World War II and helped liberate the Netherlands.
Hanna: Actually, I’m thinking of the warlords in Afghanistan the U.S. armed so they could fight the Russians. There was no controlling them after that, was there? Hey, isn’t IS driving around in Toyota Land Cruisers the U.S. gave the new Iraqi army?
Hans: So what should we do, then?
Hanna: We don’t necessarily have to do anything. If you’re standing at the edge of a busy road and you want to get to the other side, you don’t have to cross right away. You taught me that yourself. Sometimes it’s best to wait. Or get advice from our Muslim allies. They probably understand the situation a lot better than we do. We have to work together. And I don’t mean with Putin. And why don’t we state clearly what we stand for, and that it’s nonnegotiable? Equal opportunity for all, no discrimination, an open society.
Hans: Surely that speaks for itself?
Hanna: I don’t think it does. Hollande wants to extend the state of emergency in France to three months, so they’ll be able to search houses and arrest people everywhere. They’ll close the borders again, and put more police on the streets. And again, it won’t make much difference to people like you and me. But to anyone who looks Middle Eastern, it will. A couple more attacks and we won’t be a constitutional state anymore, we’ll be a police state.
Hans: OK, but how are you doing there in Berlin?
Hanna: Everyone’s afraid of Muslims because of the attacks. I’m afraid of Westerners, because now more of them than ever are going to hate Islam. I saw a comment under a report on the French bombing of Raqqa: “Carpet-bombing, like in Dresden, seems more effective to me. Demoralize the population.” How could anyone want to let that happen again?! To me, that’s scary.
Hans: Yes. Well...
Hanna: So we’re demonstrating in our own way.
The above WhatsApp exchange, which took place in November 2015 in Dutch, was edited into article form by father and daughter and posted on Facebook. The Correspondent published an edited version in Dutch and this English translation (by Laura Martz).