As this historic terrorist attack unfolds, France, Europe, the West, and the Middle East need to really think about what they’ve been doing and what they are about to do before doing it. This is a time to be smart, but it is also a time to marginalize unhelpful, myopic voices, be they those of bigots or those who would justify and excuse the terrorists. In short, the Paris attacks present significant political risk for a wide range of actors and parties, and cooler heads must lead us forward.
Thibault Camus/Associated Press
TEL AVIV — In what is clearly one of the worst terrorist attacks in the history of the Western world, as I write this Paris is under assault by apparently Islamic terrorists. Scores—over 150 so far—have been killed, many more wounded, and a hostage situation turned into a bloody mess in a series of coordinated, bloody attacks, (suicide?) bombings, shootings, grenade attacks; the military has been called in, and France’s borders sealed. The attacks are clearly professional, and not amateur. Paris resembles scenes from the trailer for London Has Fallen, with even the French President having to be evacuated from the scene of the attack at the soccer stadium. You can find more details about this from the above links. I’m not here to give a blow by blow. I’m here to help us take a breath and think about some important things here.
This is more just my informal thoughts, not a linked research piece.
Yes, the usual fools will cry their inane positions, either using this as justification for a totally overblown response embracing bigotry and racism, painting an entire group or religion as terrorists, or for making excuses for the horrific (“The terrorists are bad, but hey, blame drone strikes…”). Moderation, even when bold and forceful action is called for, must guide the response. We absolutely must avoid lashing out at an entire group of people, an entire religion. We also must absolutely acknowledge that this is not a group of disaffected farmers from Switzerland, that there is a particular religious faith and particular groups of people that carry out such attacks with far more regularity than other groups today (though not always throughout history). We must not fall victim to the usual platitudes that religion is not part of the problem, that Islam has nothing to do with such an attack, and admit that Islam, currently (though not for much of its history) has a particular issue with its extremists and how they practice violence, as do religious extremists in general in comparison to other militants. Anyone not acknowledging any of the complex thoughts I just expressed, going to harshly or too leniently from what I stated, whether being tolerant or intolerant past what is appropriate, must be firmly and politely cast aside from the public discourse and informed that they are part of the problem, not the solution, that they are wither encouraging policies that make such attacks far more likely (but not in any even slight way providing justification for such attacks) or making excuses and providing justification for those committing the attacks when no such excuses or justifications exist.
Such attacks do not absolve the West from its own bloody, repressive, murderous history; but when terrorist attacks occur in 2015, I’m simply going to label you as ridiculous if you want to talk about this being justified because of Hiroshima in 1945 or French action in Algeria in the 1950s. Nothing will excuse the past sins of the West; but, using the same logic, we cannot cite the past sins of the West asexcuses for the deliberate, specific murder of civilians in the streets of Paris tonight, or any other similar attack. War is ugly; and Western governments are too quick to label as “cowardly” and “barbaric” attacks that target their militaries when such militaries are engaged in combat operations. But these attacks were not at France’s ministry of defense, they were not targeting soldiers; they were, among other civilian targets, outside a soccer stadium during a live match, at a restaurant, at a theater during a concert. For those who bring up drone attacks, as if they are some sort of moral equivalent. Drones involve precision weapons, and strikes target those are terrorists or involved in terrorism. There are civilian deaths in these attacks quite often, but with no evidence to the contrary we cannot legitimately make the claim that those civilians are the intended targets and that there is not a legitimate intended target, even if intelligence and our own carelessness sometimes fail us and far too many civilians are killed. I’m sorry, but no matter what you say, no matter how much you hate Western policies and colonialism and imperialism, you are simply wrong if you equate drone strikes with the deliberate killing of civilians in a theater with those killings being the very end target of such an attack. You simply should go back to school and work on your similes and metaphors before inflicting your lack of erudition on others.
To the militant pro-Snowden anti-NSA crusaders: I’m not going to tell you that what Snowden did had no positive effect; it clearly did. But there are also negative effects when someone like Snowden does not behave like a true whistleblower and releases far more information than is required to make the relevant points about civil liberty and abuse of power; furthermore, as a South Park episode brilliantly pointed out, chill out with your narcissism: the U.S. government does not give a damn about your personal quirky secrets; our NSA is primarily concerned with preventing attacks like this one in Paris, not your porn tastes, political inclinations, or that you’re a closet Jane Austen fanatic. Yes, the power existed to such a degree that we needed and still need to talk about and ensure safeguards; yet as Paris should remind us, there are very real, very good reasonswhy we need the ability to monitor electronic communication because we often don’t know who will do horrible things until they do. Not only Islamic terrorism, but also domestic terrorism, often involving white American mass shooters, can also be prevented with programs like the one Snowden sabotaged; thus, let it be remembered that Snowden has made it harder for security professionals to stop attacks just like the ones which occurred in Paris, and the issue of surveillance is far more complicated than the documentary Citizenfour would have you believe.
To those who think the only solution to this is simply more use of force and would blame Obama for not invading Syria and Iraq today like Bush invaded Iraq in 2003, please, just go away and stop talking. There are many complex factors in play. France in particular has serious problems with how it treats its Muslims and immigrants, problems that were not unrelated to the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Europe in general has similar problems, too. But let us not for one second think that because some groups might be marginalized and maltreated that they are, in response, entitled to slaughter civilians. And there are many long-term problems in the Middle East and other Islamic countries that are certainly related to the issues of terrorism, not least the issues of how minorities are treated, how religious extremism is promoted and perpetuated, how women and sexuality are repressed. We must also be careful in the West of how we manage our military-industrial complex and our own tendency to overreact to terrorism that, in the long run, actually creates more terrorism by generating more hate, destabilization, terrorist recruits, and by playing right into the terrorists’ playbook.
As France and the world decide how to react to this horrific terrorist attack—one following on the verily likely terrorist downing of a Russian airliner in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula—it is important to take a breath. This could very well lead to massive escalation in Syria by France (and maybe Russia, in relation to the airliner attack) and maybe even by others if it turns out ISIS had something to do with it; Yemen could be a focus if the attack involves the al-Qaeda affiliate operating there. Whatever moves are made, it is important to keep a clear head and ask what the likely results are to be of any such escalation, whether such moves will be more productive or more counterproductive for the concerned party’s interests and for the people of the region where the escalation occurs. The Middle East, its regimes and its people, will also need to consider how miserable a failure their policies and mentalities have been in general, and to consider how much these failures can and have shaped their global perception and relationship with the West, as well as attacks like the ones in Paris tonight.
Perhaps most importantly, European leaders are going to have to manage a public outcry. Even before these attacks in Paris tonight, many parts of Europe have been experiencing a massive rightward lurch politically, in both elections and in public sentiment, driven in large part by anti-immigrant sentiment. This is at a time when the EU is fighting to stay together, whether with the UK or Greece, and when the whole continent is facing a massive refugee crisis; this attack presents new challenges to the EU at a time when it is more fragile than it has been for some time. While it is difficult to predict what will happen as far as EU unity, it is not difficult to predict that there will almost certainly be a massive reduction in the number of Syrian refugees that will be able to enter Europe and major delays in the processing of those who are lucky enough to be let in. The sad truth is that even as some European leaders will valiantly fight on behalf of the refugees (e.g.,Germany’s Angela Merkel), the more they do so, the more their political opposition opposing such moves will be empowered. The biggest losers, ironically, of these attacks besides the victims and their families are going to be the very people fleeing the Middle East from the same type of violence. Europe’s best bet—and it will be a longshot—will be a coordinated public relations effort aimed at empowering calmer heads and fighting anti-immigrant sentiment, racism, and Islamophobia. However, at best they will likely only be able to mitigate such effects, as it seems the France and European public will almost certainly move even further to the right after this event.
These attacks in Paris are more than an attack: it is a moment where there must absolutely be reflection on what is to come and an effort to make sure that what we do now does not make things worse and cause Europe to make regrettable moves either in the same vein as the U.S. did after 9/11 or that brings far-rightists much more power in one of the world’s oases of tolerance and multiculturalism. The risks this situation present to France, Europe, the Western World, Syria, Iraq, the Middle East in general, Syrian refugees, and world stability in general are significant and must be considered. This is a moment with great peril not just for the West but also the whole world; those watching our reaction not least will be the terrorists themselves.