I can’t think of a more trite thing to say at this moment, or a more truthful: I love Paris.
I’ve never lived in Paris. But it’s always felt like home whether I’m there or not. I can rarely be there. So when I need to feel its cobblestoned streets on my soles, I read Balzac. When I need to smell the foul odors of its tempers, I read Zola. And when I’m in withdrawal from not hearing the pompous lilt of Parisian French, I watch the news on French TV, which calms my need to hop the next flight. I feel that way about only one other city, New York, where I lived for seven years. The parallels now intersect where madness does.
Friday’s attacks on Paris don’t come near those of 9/11 in any way. They’re more like copycat amplifications of the attack on Charlie Hebdo’s staff in January: same kind of soft targets, same primitive tactics and idiot fanaticism. But the attacks are just as emotionally painful. I didn’t feel that way when suicide bombers, in a little-noticed preview of the Paris attacks, killed and wounded 200 people in Beirut Thursday evening–the worst bombing since the end of the civil war in 1990–and those victims were once my compatriots. But I feel that way about Paris, and I don’t doubt a billion people who’ve never set foot there feel that way too. It’s our city as most other cities could never be.
Like it or not, Paris defines us historically, politically, culturally. It is the birthplace of human rights (if not quite human rights’ best model over the years), the ornery matron of democracy, and of course the Holy See of rationalism. That’s what those bastards attacked Friday. Acts of barbarism reduce our reactions and emotions to something equally primitive: I love this. I hate that. What else can we do but weep and scream, show solidarity in what little ways we can. It’s not as if any of us, the commanders of every military in the world included, could up and strangle the perpetrators or carpet-bomb them back to the age of amoebas from where they came, even though it’s what most of us wish we could do. You can’t defeat kamikazes when they beat you to the punch.
ISIS, al-Qaeda, Islamism (as opposed to Islam), they’re strains of the same disorder, the same epidemic. And like all diseases, especially diseases of the mind, there’s only so much that can be done in the absence of a cure. More bombings isn’t it. “Boots on the ground,” that revolting euphemism that reduces soldiers to that symbolic grave-marker even before they’re killed, isn’t it. It’s what got us to this point to start with. Let’s not kid ourselves: there was no al-Qaeda before the CIA armed the mujahideens in Afghanistan to fight the Soviets in the 1980s. There was no Taliban before Pakistan did the same with its own radical Muslims. There was no Hezbollah before Ronald Reagan chose to aid and encourage the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. There was no ISIS before George W. Bush invaded Iraq and atomized a dictator into a thousand mirror images all over the Levant.
In every case, an insurgency arose out of reckless, short-sighted interference for military gain. In every case, the United States and the West have had to retreat in defeat. Reagan surrendered and retreated from Lebanon. Afghanistan is no less lost to us than it was to the Soviets, with the Taliban ascendant. Iraq was never close to won, and is still the second-most violent nation in the world after Syria. And we want to make the John McCains and Lindsay Grahams’ fetish for more troops sound more reasonable than the fetish of ISIS fanatics for more heads?
Of course we’re behind the curve, but only to the extent that we refuse to acknowledge that this is not an offensive on ISIS’s part. It’s blow-back. It is the continuing consequence of decades of false assumptions that American or western weaponry can make a difference in the Middle East, let alone effect change that mirrors western ideals. It can’t. It can only instigate the sort of mayhem we are now contending with. There is nothing to do but absorb these attacks. That sounds anathema to a nation of jingoes. But it’s a nation of jingoes that led us to the blood-pits we’re in now.
We can fight back. But not by attacking in turn, and again, but by ending the murderous cycle to the extent we can and should: by closing Guatanamo, which has served as an excellent recruiting symbol for a generation of jihadists, by leaving Afghanistan, and by leaving Iraq for good. Syria and Iraq are Iran’s and the Arab world’s problems. They’re not ours. We’ve never won there. We’re not about to. Staying there is a guarantee of little more than western casualties–there and in the west. It might feel good to chest-thump for bombings and troops and another invasion here and there. It’ll accomplish nothing that the Iraq and Afghan wars haven’t failed to accomplish. That doesn’t mean western forces have zero role to play. But if it’s terrorists we’re after, the Abbatobad raid showed what works. Invasions and drone wars guided from a base off the Vegas strip does not.
And cracking down on civil liberties while stepping up the police state a-la-Patriot Act at home certainly does not. That, too, is a brutal lesson of the Paris attacks, which took place in the most police-heavy capital in Europe.
Two years ago the French legislature passed the Military Programming Law, whose Article 20 authorizes government agencies to spy on phone, Internet and any other electronic communications in real time, without a warrant or even a judge’s knowledge. That law was in effect when the attacks took place against Charlie Hebdo, and of course when they took place Friday.
In May, the French parliament approved an even more sweeping spying law that gave police the power to install recording or video spying devices in people’s homes and cars, tap their personal computers, their cell phones and any other digital device, and to target associates of individuals under surveillance to be monitored with the same scrutiny. The powers may be exercised on French citizens as well as foreigners. (The Constitutional Council, reviewing the law in July, struck down a provision that would have allowed international surveillance and given police authority to conduct unbridled and undefined operations in emergencies, without oversight, but let remaining provisions stand). Prime Minister Manuel Valls cheered the law as an effective weapon against terrorism. That law was in full effect Friday.
It did nothing to stop the attacks. The French had no clue. Nor did the NSA.
If anything, and perhaps counter-intuitively, because of its broadness, because of its lack of required, defined and calibrated targets (a definition that to some extent still applies in American domestic spying, though not by much), it creates a false sense of security while producing a mass of data that no agency could effectively analyze. It doesn’t improve the ability to search for needles in haystacks. It creates haystacks in the search for the few needles. Like the National Security Agency’s gathering of mass metadata, it dilutes the effectiveness of calibrated intelligence. Put another way: it stupefies intelligence gathering under the guise of omnipotence. To say that it doesn’t work is not speculation. Paris tells us: it did not work. Doubling down on spying and surveillance won’t improve matters any more than doubling down on missile tonnage against ISIS.
A newsman on French TV this afternoon was interviewing an anti-terrorism “expert” who’d allegedly been predicting an attack for a while. It’s a skill no greater than a clock’s ability to strike 12 twice a day: anyone who makes such predictions is proven right sooner or later in the age of terrorism, which stretches back to the 1970s. But the newsman asked the expert one of the most pointed questions of these attacks: how does a democracy respond to men dressed in explosives, wielding AK-47s and being willing to die.
The answer is that a democracy does not respond, cannot respond, without diminishing itself as a democracy and aping the traps of autocracy and militarism, as Europe and the United States did in the wake of 9/11 and the 2005 attacks. We have a choice. We can continue down that autocratic warpath, as we have for the past 15 years. Or we can begin to take a few lessons from the history and blood of those 15 years of failure. We’ve not lacked for lessons. Paris is the latest.
Of course it’s not the last. We’re too stupid and bloodthirsty to make it so.