Thinking about Paris: Let's not compound tragedy with stupidity

Sunday, November 15, 2015

While the past week has been a bloody one in a number of places, most of the world's attention has been fixed on Paris.  All I can say is that I hope that people in France react to last Friday's attacks in a much smarter way than Americans did after 9/11

It's a point worth keeping in mind. I realize that it's popular in some circles to blame the Iraq debacle solely upon the administration of George W. Bush and the numerous falsehoods that the president, vice-president and other high-ranking officials made when leading the US into war in the months and years following the 9/11 attacks. But it was also the case that Americans were ready to believe the lies they were told. The idea of starting a war in someone else's country based upon what was, at best, quite ambiguous evidence, wasn't a very large point of concern for most Americans in the wake of the attacks. I think that what a lot of people thought was that, even if the evidence linking Iraq to 9/11 turned out to be wrong, an American invasion and US-sponsored regime change in Baghdad would still be salubrious to Iraq and the Middle East more generally. 

Well, we all know how well that worked out. 

So, my hope is that reactions in France will not be marked by a similar arrogance, or a similar inclination to wallow in self-pity and victimization. Most of all, I hope that the French government can resist the urge to strike back at someone, anyone, in the interest of looking tough or resolute. The Bush administration did Osama bin Laden and his sympathizers an incredible favor by invading Iraq. And now some people are calling for a similar type of response by France (and NATO) in Syria, which frankly seems like a terrible idea right now. 

"Normally I wear protection, but then I thought when's the next time I'll get the chance to re-live the mistakes of 9/11?"

It would also be good if folks in France could avoid the sort of disingenuous self-pity that afflicted Americans in the wake of 9/11. It is in no means a sign of disrespect to those who died on 9/11 to point out that the US was targeted not simply because "we love freedom" (as W was fond of saying back then). Rather, the US was attacked on 9/11 because of our politics. That doesn't make the 9/11 attacks any less horrific or diabolical. But it pays to be honest about why such things happen in the first place. 

France would be better off avoiding the sort of disingenuous self-pity that took hold of Americans after 9/11
Similarly in France it would probably be most helpful, I think, if the anger and sadness that last Friday's attacks have engendered could also be accompanied by humility and introspection. France has real problems integrating its post-colonial communities, especially from North Africa. And while this is a really serious issue,  it's not one that necessarily has to be a part of the conflict that is currently taking place in Iraq and Syria. Any response that the French government--and French people--make to the attacks needs to undertaken in a way that does not further alienate its own Muslim populations. It doesn't seem that France succeeded in doing this following the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Hopefully this time around people in France will do a better job of expressing grief in a manner that does not exacerbate existing problems relating to the question of how Muslims in France--and especially young Muslim men--fit into French society more generally. 

People are already talking about the Paris attacks in terms similar to those of 9/11. Without any compelling evidence for doing so, we assume that ISIS is a tightly-controlled hierarchical organization willing and able to mastermind, from the rubble of Syria and Iraq, attacks on "civilization" ranging from Russian jetliners to Parisian cafes, theatres, and sports venues. So, the obvious answer, according to this way of thinking, is to attack the "headquarters" in the Middle East in retribution for the blows dealt to Paris over the weekend. Fight them on their own turf so that we don't have to fight them at home, right?

And who knows? Maybe the attacks really were masterminded from the Middle East. But it seems to me that, in dealing with the sort of terrorism that Paris experienced last Friday, anyone who sympathizes with ISIS is, for all intents and purposes, a potential member of ISIS. This danger far exceeds whatever ISIS leaders in Syria and Iraq are actually capable of organizing and carrying out by themselves. Anyone can use weapons to kill dozens of people. It's up to the French themselves to make sure that these attacks don't lead to broader ruptures within French society. And it is this latter concern--what all of this means for conditions inside France--that should matter much more to the people who were affected by last Friday's events.

It's important to be able to distinguish between domestic terrorism and foreign conflicts taking place in the Middle East, no matter how much one might be inspired by the other. This is because whoever was behind the attacks in Paris on Friday is ultimately concerned with tearing apart French (and, by extension, European) society, as opposed to simply contributing to the war in the Middle East.  

The perpetrators of Friday's mayhem wanted to re-create, in France and Europe more generally, the sort of polarization that took place in the Middle East after the US overreached and invaded Iraq as a response to 9/11. They want the worst elements in French society to scream the loudest and make the most outrageous claims about how this is all about Islam and Muslims. They want the French to make the same horrible blunders that Americans--two-thirds of whom supported the invasion of Iraq in March of 2003, and who then re-elected the people who led the invasion--made in response  to 9/11

No matter who was behind the Paris attacks--whether they were organized by ISIS leaders in the Middle East, a tightly-coordinated terrorist group in Europe, or lone wolves acting on their own--it seems pretty likely that the goal of the attackers was to further drive Muslims and non-Muslims apart from one another in France and elsewhere in Europe. After 9/11, the Bush administration played into the hands of Osama bin Laden and his sympathizers by taking steps to further alienate Muslims across the world from the United States--a point that has been made most recently here. Here's hoping the French don't make similar mistakes--because the effect would be felt not only internationally, but also among a large alienated community at home 

It was the attackers from Friday who were seeking to blur the lines between domestic tensions and international warfare. If the French are smart, they won't allow themselves to follow this lead.  

Also see: 


Nothing to Celebrate 

Responding post-Charlie

160 libraries can't be wrong! Get yours to order a copy of Turks Across Empires at the OUP website or from Amazon

More links, commentary and photographs available,
as usual, at the Borderlands Lounge.  

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