Defending “Rome”

Shortly after 9/11, I happened to be in Rome, and several friends there argued at the time that a similar attack on St. Peter’s was unlikely. In those innocent days – before we learned that jihadists have often studied engineering, medicine, and computer science – Rome dwellers tried to calm their fears (as it seemed then to me, at least) by quoting some tech expert who argued that if anyone tried to fly a plane into the dome of St. Peter’s, it would probably just bounce off.

That was Pollyannaish then, and the responses to the current threats don’t seem much more realistic now. I happen to be in Rome this week and was wondering, before I arrived, whether there would be greater urgency, given that direct threats have been made by ISIS against Rome, including – as a recruiting tool – pictures of St. Peter’s flanked by minarets, the way Hagia Sophia, formerly a Byzantine basilica, is in Istanbul today.

Other than a bumper crop of street vendors selling selfie sticks, Rome looks no different. Italian government buildings are as well guarded as before – which is to say, not very much by Anglo-Saxon standards. Entry into St. Peter’s is still briefly slowed by metal detectors and security officers who seem severely challenged even to identify a threat, let alone stop one. Perhaps there are beefed up security forces in the shadows, but it might help deter evildoers openly to show real force.

There’s also the problem of denial in the press: conservative and liberal papers alike are trying to comfort themselves that Italians going to fight in Syria and Iraq are few. And that a substantial ISIS tract, the first such text translated into Italian, tries to appeal to European Muslims via ISIS’s bourgeois achievements such as healthcare, a stable currency, and halal markets. It’s the Italian community organizers’ take, so to speak.

At the Sunday Angelus, Pope Francis especially asked prayers for Syria and Iraq. He didn’t mention ISIS by name, but anyone aware of what’s going on knew what he meant. He made a special point of encouraging everyone to do whatever they can, within their own circumstances and possibilities, to help those in the Middle East and other countries suffering for the Faith.

Prayer is, of course, very powerful and it’s a good Lenten practice to lift up the case of the persecuted to the Almighty.

“Dabiq,” the ISIS recruiting magazine, sets it sights on Rome
“Dabiq,” the ISIS recruiting magazine, sets it sights on Rome

You can’t help feeling, however, that something more than prayer and individual efforts needs to be done. The very first trip Francis made as pope outside Rome was to Lampedusa, an Italian island south of Sicily, only a short hop over to Libya. Libyans and other Africans fleeing conflict seek asylum there in much the same way that Cubans have tried to reach Florida. Many die in both cases. Back then, it seemed a simple humanitarian gesture to call for greater openness and care for refugees.

The African exodus, however, was and is an overwhelming problem. There may be as many as 2 million people ready to take their chances crossing. And if those were given a warm welcome, it’s difficult to say how much of the rest of Africa would try to follow. Italy has been basically welcoming, and therefore is now about at the limit of what it can handle, given its own internal economic problems. The European Union has created a broader program, but who these days wants millions more Muslims in nations already troubled by earlier Muslim immigration – and fearful of jihadists concealing themselves among legitimate refugees?

Several weeks ago, the Vatican Secretary of State, Pietro Parolin, called for action to help stabilize the situation in Libya. Unfortunately, like many in the Vatican, he specified that it had to be carried out by an international body, the United Nations, which has neither the will nor the means to do anything meaningful about this matter.

In a similar vein, Andrea Riccardi, head of the Sant’Egidio community in Rome wrote a column over the weekend in the Corriere della Sera, the Italian equivalent in terms of prestige and ideology to our New York Times. That community has prided itself on a kind of independence in dialogue and reconciliation and peace-making. But Riccardi seemed flummoxed by what’s currently going on in the Arab world. He laid out a clear summary of the major conflicts and concluded that, with everything that’s happening, we can’t just sit by, idle.

True enough, but any real response means adopting a well thought out strategy, not moral hand-wringing. Despite the bad example the Obama administration and the rest of America’s leadership have set, the basic elements of that strategy, if it is to be effective, are no great mystery. Riccardi says we cannot “impose” a solution. If he’s speaking of some simplistic military solution (he doesn’t seem to want to say too clearly what he means), of course not.

But the West and our allies in the Middle East – Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi, Bahrain, and several others – have no other choice than to seek to “impose” a multi-dimensional solution.

We need action on multiple fronts: diplomatic, ideological, social. But the clearest signal the West could send at the moment would be to put a contingent of special forces on the ground (preferably with, but if necessary without, Arab allies), drive ISIS out of Mosul, and keep it out. A military reversal of that magnitude would eliminate a fair bit of ISIS’s current glamour and open up a space for the longer-term soft approaches.

Here in Rome, there seem to be few who want to face that reality. It’s curious that as Europe, America, and the world confront such a clear enemy to human civilization, that there’s been little sense of urgency about acting in self-defense, let alone – as just war theory has always taught – to protect others who are innocent. It’s a serious question what this means about Christianity in our day, our secular order, and the world’s real moral priorities.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.