It’s taken me a few days to coalesce my thoughts about the attacks in Paris, but in writing this I was really waiting for the inevitable reaction. Unfortunately, I could have written this days, or even months ago, and it would have been the same.
I can’t imagine what the people of Paris are going through. In many ways, this is a more horrifying attack than September 11th, or even the Charlie Hebdo attack. This was not an attack on a specific target – even the Bataclan was not really a ‘target’ per se, other than having a high concentration of victims available. 9/11 was a strike against a symbol made by ultimately faceless killers, as everyone they directly terrorized died with them, and the overwhelming body count actually veers into Stalin’s ‘statistics’ category. Charlie Hebdo was a directed strike against a singular group that the average person likely had a strong opinion on but didn’t think about often. The attack probably reinforced their opinion, and left them with the comforting notion that as long as they didn’t do what Charlie did, they’d be safe.
This attack, however, is the kind of attack I’d have been making against the west since 2001 were I a terrorist mastermind. This is visceral, up front, random violence that leaves a lot of blood and even more witnesses. This is the kind of attack that truly terrorizes a population. It doesn’t give them the option of staying away from symbols or comforting themselves with notions that if they don’t poke the bear, it won’t eat them. This is what terror looks like.
With all the outpourings of sympathy, for the changed user icons with French flag overlays, one would think that this is a rare occurrence. I suppose it is, if you’re a privileged white Westerner. But these kinds of attacks happen almost daily around the world. 147 people were murdered in an attack on Garissa University College in Kenya in April. 233 civilians were massacred over two days in Kobani, Syria in June. 145 people were murdered in a series of bombings in Borno State, Nigeria in September. Those are just a few of the ‘larger’ attacks, but we almost never hear about them on the news, or they’re part of the background noise that’s quickly forgotten. I say this as an NPR listener – I remember all of those events being reported, but they were tucked into the regularity of other reporting and had a shelf life of maybe two days. In contrast, the Paris attacks became the only news on for hours, and is still being discussed.
We care now because the bodies are white, because they were enjoying music that we like when they died, because we saw first-hand accounts on social media. To put a fine point on it, the people who died were us. There’s a perception that everywhere that’s not speaking English is a dirt-poor third-world country where this sort of thing is an accepted part of life, but that is not the case. People die in these attacks doing the same things the people in Paris died doing, and it gets broadcast on social media just the same. We don’t see it, because we don’t speak Swahili or Arabic or Yoruba.
The death toll in Paris is tragic, but the real tragedy will truly unfold in the days and weeks to come. The mindset of France today should be familiar to anyone who remembers September 14th, 2001 in America. We were numb, we were angry, we were ready to bomb anyone who didn’t give full-throated support to our desire to bomb everyone. We were looking for enemies under every rock, and when we found people who looked like them, we didn’t stop to ask questions first. France is ready to lash out at Syrian refugees, even though those refugees are fleeing the very same violence. They’ve come to Europe to escape incidents like this happening on a daily basis. What they’re finding is a a disturbingly familiar othering from voices on the right that has led, in the past, to some rather dark times.
Of course, France isn’t just focused on internal threats. Long the cultural symbol of hesitance in the face of danger, unwillingness to fight, or outright cowardice (a relatively undeserved stereotype), France is gnashing its teeth and vowing, in the words of President Hollande, a “war which will be pitiless” which sounds like the perfect response to point to when I have to write this again in 10 years. Hollande is George W. Bush standing at Ground Zero, vowing that Al-Qaeda would “will hear all of us soon.” 14 years later, we have a line of futility drawn straight from that pile of rubble to the attack in Paris, and it’s labelled “the Islamic State.” This is a beast of our own making. Hollande’s pitiless war is just going to be more of the same. Wars of vengeance do not solve problems, they create them. The U.S. war in Iraq created IS. IS has no borders, so attacking it means attacking Syria and Turkey and Iraq and Lebanon and Jordan, and even breaking the military capacity of IS is effectively meaningless considering they weren’t rolling tanks into Paris. Adding more death and destruction to the Middle East is the exact opposite of a solution to the problem, and it is fundamentally what IS wants.
The Islamic State is no stranger to massacring Muslims, as their targets are, by a wide margin, mostly people in their own neighborhood. The goal of this attack in Paris and others perpetrated in the West is to get the West to strike back. Our own cultural insensitivity works both ways – they kill 140 people in Paris, and the average Kurd or Syrian doesn’t care in the same way we don’t care if 140 of them are killed. Similarly, if the response is French war planes bombing targets up the street, or French soldiers going door-to-door, the people directly affected aren’t going to sit there calmly and accept that this is because of an attack 2,500 miles away. All they’re going to see is France wrecking their town. And eventually, an IS ideologue is going to sing sweetly to their children that they can get revenge, all they have to do is wear this vest and go to heaven.
So yes, I mourn for Paris. But we need to stop acting like this is the only real terrorism, or that the responses we’re seeing are acceptable or even useful. Because if we do, I’ll just be able to change a few names and post this again. And again. And again.