The simultaneous bomb attacks that hit Paris on November 13 have left us shocked, hurt and almost speechless. After the shock, and while mourning for those directly hit, we needed time to reflect and to see how political leaders reacted. Unfortunately, that response has added insult to injury.
The people the attackers targeted were mostly young people – those out on a Friday night in bars, cafés and concert halls – and a population that is living and enjoying a multicultural atmosphere. The targeted activities fall into categories ISIS has labeled as ‘perversion and vice’: rock ‘n’ roll, partying, entertainment. All of which are associated with French and Western culture.
The attackers wanted to denounce our ‘way of life’ and to fragment a population that lives largely -so far, and despite well-known social and economic fractures- in peace.
In their zeal to appear resolute and strong, our leaders have walked directly into the trap set for them by ISIS: waging war and redoubling military efforts. We agree that the response should be forceful, and indeed include targeted military action to remove the financial and communications capacities of ISIS, but the force of our response should come from the degree to which it opens up political possibilities in Syria and Iraq. Not from the degree of destruction it causes.
Several points should be open for discussion and criticism:
The use of the term ‘war’
Shortly after the attacks, French President François Hollande and his government announced that the country was officially at war with the terrorists. We remember this rhetoric from then President of the United States, George W. Bush in response to the September 11 attacks. It chills us that France and Europe may repeat this grave, relatively recent mistake. We feel no safer due to action taken by America and its allies in Iraq in the “War on Terror”. In fact, one of the reasons France was targeted is its military presence in Libya and Syria, and bombing of Raqqa. After the Paris attacks it just continues, hurting not only some of the Daech members and supporters but also many civilians.
Instead of a ‘war against terrorism’, France and European Countries could use the good old tools of foreign policy and refuse to support countries who are known to finance Daech, or to give money to Turkey, which breaks down on the only people efficiently fighting ISIS on the territory it manages. .
Spreading the sense of being at war is dangerous
Since Friday night, Parisians have faced closed public utilities, shops, parks, a nominal ‘curfew’ and increased checks before entering buildings. Soldiers are increasingly visible on the streets, adding to the heightened sense of being under siege.
This may have reinforced the feeling that people were right to be afraid, as several movements of panic in the streets have shown. At the same time, all these ‘visible actions’ may potentially divert the necessary human means of more useful actions, linked to surveillance of select people, and coordination and cooperation with other countries.
And here lies the next threat: that of democracies being the real and open enemies of civil liberties and – because of the so-called anti-terrorism legislations – developing arsenals of surveillance of all civilians that go beyond the surveillance necessary to stop real terrorist threats. Hollande is already proposing to amend the French constitution to allow for a State of Emergency to be declared in new situations and more power to be delegated to the armies.
Terrorists are a not powerful army generated by ISIS
Home-born terrorists turned trained fighters by ISIS is a threat widely discussed and known. Reports suggests that most of Nov 13 attackers were born in France, as are those who have claimed the action from ISIS-managed territory.
In the middle East, ISIS is facing defeats on the territory it manages inflicted by relatively small and badly supported groups such as the Kurds.
If they take the matter seriously, it seems not out-of-reach for powerful, wealthy countries to find the right way to defeat the home-based cells and individuals. It may require using new forms of actions, which are not all armed ones, such as addressing the population in danger of radicalisation on its territory and finding the right way to manage them if/when they return.
Some of the attackers were French citizens, residing in Belgium who drove to Paris in a rented car. On its surface, this would seem to justify increased borders controls between European countries. However, controls do not mean that the threat is well taken into account. Some of the Charlie Hebdo attackers had been subjected to police controls controlled a few days before the attacks, without any further action being taken. Some of the alleged attackers of Paris on November 13 have been controlled by police in France on Sunday November 14 in the morning without further action being taken.
This suggests that beyond ‘controlling’ and closing borders, some other type of action – that are more connected with the efficiency of the special intelligence services – should be taken.
If we need something today it is probably more Europe and a better interconnection between countries, working together on the same threat and challenges rather than one more action going in the direction of dismantling Europe and its strong advantages, linked to the free movement of people and things. Giving up these things is doing the work of the terrorists for them.
The rise of patriotism, the use of the French flag, and the relative silence about bomb attacks in other countries
When tragedy strikes, it is not surprising that people want to express solidarity. Still, the widespread use of a national symbol to show solidarity with victims of many different nationalities, as well as a flag that, much like many national flags, is associated with a complicated history seems to exclude the victims of violence and terrorism across the globe.
If the idea is to show support to the victims we choose from among the more powerful and universal: sing a rock ’n’ roll song, drink a beverage of your choice, debate, sit on a terrace.
Attacks on religion
France praises itself for being a secular country (whether it really is or not) and as secular as some of us may feel, we do not think that attacking religion is appropriate. Freedom of religion is fundamental to free speech. In a world of respect, anyone is allowed and free to practice her or his religion. Most of those who disagree with radical extremists do not support the backward and dreadful thinking proclaimed by the Islamist terrorists. Many of those who are hit around the world by the terrorist attacks of those in support of Daech are themselves religious. They are Muslims, Jews and Christians whose values differ from those of Daech. Religion is not the problem, Islam is not the problem. The problem is backward thinking extremists who have chosen an apocalyptic morale of violence, slavery, power and constraint.
The November 13 attacks were an attack on culture, on a lifestyle and on a generation. If listening to music, having a drink with friends, enjoying a football game or just walking in the streets freely, is in breach of the radical islamist extremist morale, we should continue to claim our right to live as we wish and not fall into a state of fear and defensiveness, as those who attacked Paris on November 13 hoped we would.
There are many good actions that the French state undertook, such as swift and accurate (as far as we know today) police and firemen’s and hospital reactions. There are many moves that one needs to criticise and try to act upon as Europeans and defenders of our culture of living together, openness and seeking happiness.
So come to Paris, share a drink, and continue to criticize the governments when they are wrong.