Clooney, Clinton and useless ‘soft outrage’

After the Paris attacks by al Qaeda-aligned Islamic terrorists, much of the world — even some Muslim world leaders — seems united in the defense of free speech and freedom of religion.

And at the Golden Globes recently, Hollywood declared its aversion to attacks on liberty, mocking North Korea’s Kim Jong Un for trying to shut down the movie “The Interview” and announcing its united front with France against terrorism.

“Je suis Charlie,” said Jared Leto.

“Together we will stand united against anyone who would oppress free speech,” said Hollywood Foreign Press Association president Theo Kingma. George Clooney talked about the millions who marched for unity in Paris: “They marched in support of the idea that we will not walk in fear. We won’t do it.”

The tech world, too, has pledged its support of life and liberty in the wake of the Sony hack and Paris attacks. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg called for a rejection of “extremists trying to silence the voices and opinions of everyone else around the world.” Google featured a black ribbon on its homepage and Apple put a banner with the words “Je Suis Charlie” on its French website.

This is all very fine and good, of course. The horrific slayings of French police officers, French cartoonists and four Jews at a grocery store should be the kind of shock to the system that brings even the most disparate of groups together, and maybe even jolts them out of the false sense of security that al Qaeda’s “leadership ranks have been decimated” or that Islamic extremism can be thwarted by efforts at multiculturalism.

Many are united in horror, but one only needs to look back at some recent examples of other horrifying atrocities to know that mere symbolism and solidarity — what I call the weapons of “soft outrage” — will not be enough to stamp out terrorism in Europe or anywhere else.

It’s been eight months since Boko Haram militants kidnapped more than 200 teenage girls in Chibok, Nigeria, and they are still missing, despite U.S. first lady Michelle Obama’s best efforts at soft outrage, joining a Twitter campaign to #BringBackOurGirls. Even though it went viral, and everyone from Hillary Clinton to British Prime Minister David Cameron chimed in, hashtag activism hasn’t proven very effective in the face of violent Islamic extremism.

Last week reports that a shudder-inducing 2,000 people were killed in Nigeria once again shocked Western audiences, who then learned that most of the victims were reportedly children, women and the elderly. The BBC estimates that Boko Haram now controls 70% of Nigeria’s Borno state.

In another corner of Africa, Darfur remains a ghastly site of untold violence and genocide that has spanned 10 years, wiped out hundreds of thousands and displaced millions. Last October there was reportedly a mass rape in the village of Tabit, Sudan, as tribal fighting rages on.

But this weekend the Golden Globes honored Clooney with a lifetime achievement award, for his work in film but also for raising awareness of Darfur’s plight. What has all that awareness accomplished? Not much, as the Guardian recently learned. It asked people who have lived and worked in the region “What happened to Darfur after George Clooney came to town?”

As one resident put it:

“Clooney might be doing something fantastic — tracking the movements of Sudanese troops and militias — but for me as a person living in Darfur, in touch with what is happening on daily basis, I don’t see that it has halted, or even reduced, the genocide. The killing, displacement, sexual assaults and rape never stopped.”

While awareness and solidarity aren’t unimportant, “soft outrage” is useless in stopping terrorism and genocide. These things often require force, the kind of intervention that tends to make soft outragers uncomfortable.

If Clooney, for example, truly cares about the people of Darfur (and I’m certain that he does), I would hope he accepts that “awareness” alone will not end the genocide there — only force will.

Hashtag diplomacy isn’t an actual solution to a terrifying, real problem. But military intervention to “bring back our girls” or stop the horrific atrocities in Nigeria could well be.

Europe must accept that unity marches and inclusion rhetoric won’t protect freedom of speech or religion against extremists determined to attack them. France has recommitted to attacking ISIS in Iraq along with the U.S., but will it join in strikes against ISIS in Syria, or al Qaeda terrorists in the Arabian Peninsula and elsewhere?

Silicon Valley must accept that Facebook posts and website banners won’t prevent terrorists — whether ISIS or actors like Kim Jong Un — from attacking Western values and Western infrastructure. Will Facebook, Google and Apple support the necessary investments in our national defense that will help better protect our values and our companies?

Maybe you don’t believe that the United States should involve itself politically or militarily in these conflicts around the world. That’s a reasonable position, even if I disagree with it.

But let’s not kid ourselves into thinking our soft outrage is either effective or noble.

It’s lovely to see all these folks “stand with France.” But standing isn’t doing, and the hard truth is that symbolism is no match for the fanatics who want us exterminated.

Are they ready to back up their rhetoric with action?

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