We have been sold a story that goes like this: spend more on weapons, get more peace. But a strong government with an overpowering military didn't stop Luke Skywalker from joining the Rebel Alliance and launching an attack against the Death Star. It didn't stop Katniss from defying the Capitol. And it didn't stop Harry Potter and Dumbledore's Army from opposing the corrupt Ministry of Magic. La Résistance is an incredibly common trope.
Deterrence theory suggests that military strategy should entail more than just winning the war: it should deter conflict in the first place. By having a bigger military--a "bigger stick," if you will--you can avoid attacks because your opponent knows the damage they will incur in a fight is likely too big a price to pay. Typically applied to nuclear war, it certainly seems logical when dealing with certain actors--rational governments may avoid war with those who have nuclear bombs. Even in this context though, it is losing favor.
The problem is that a strong military force is not effective against powerful ideas, especially against those who feel they have little to lose. Terrorists, particularly those willing to lose their lives committing acts of atrocity, have committed to an ideal much larger than law, and no supply of gunpowder or drones will deter them. In 2001, the United States had 10,491 nuclear weapons and arguably the strongest military in the world. That didn't deter the 9/11 hijackers. France had the fifth-highest military expenditure in the world in 2014, spending $62.3 billion, but in 2015 was the target of three separate, horrific terrorist attacks.
The men and women in our military branches do a great deal to protect our country and defend our ideals around the world, but they cannot wield a gun with one hand and offer democracy with the other. As we've learned from Afghanistan and Iraq, democracy and self-governance are ideals and values that can only be upheld by the people themselves, not by the sitting occupation of a foreign entity. Military power cannot be relied upon to prevent terrorism.
If the intelligence and military powers of the US and Europe can’t prevent terrorism, what the hell are we, as individuals, supposed to do? Honestly, attempting to follow the news is exhausting and stressful enough as it is.
However, I submit to you that in a war between democracy and terrorism, we have the power to fight on a side of our choosing.
The terrorists in Paris were members of our own Western society, embittered by our luxuries--leisurely dinners and rock concerts--while their comrades took up arms for a cause they were willing to die for. They see themselves as part of a Rebel Alliance, fighting against the Imperial forces who promote sinful practices. I cannot claim to understand their ideology, but they attract the disenfranchised and disaffected, luring them with promises of a utopia practicing a more “moral” lifestyle.
Don’t we all want to be part of something bigger than ourselves? Instead of ostracizing our ethnic and religious minorities, we can embrace them, try to understand them, and promote our own morality and messages of peace, democracy, and equality.
ISIS recruits through Twitter. I may suck at social media, but I can try to embody the values of democracy, tolerance, and freedom I care about. I can strive to understand more about the conflict by reading articles, try to see things from a Syrian refugee's perspective, make friends with someone whose viewpoint is different from my own, write letters to my congressperson, donate to a cause, or any number of things to promote the ideals that ISIS threatens: democracy, freedom, women's rights, education, free speech, etc. This is not a battle of arms; it's a battle of ideas.
I prescribe nothing except thoughtful action. I cannot tell you the best approach. In a complex world, there are no easy answers. But the military cannot solve this problem--only we can.