Yesterday I posted on the French police and its method of ethnic/racial profiling, which one sees almost daily in French cities, and particularly if one regularly rides the metro or suburban trains. In an update to my post, I rhetorically asked if the mobilization of the police toward this end were an optimal utilization of resources, as it were. Or, to put it another way, if the mass ID checks of immigrant-looking persons minding their own business made the public any safer. On this score, there’s a somewhat related matter that I have been wondering about for a long time now, which is the patrolling of metro/RER/train stations and other heavily frequented public places by soldiers, in the context of the Vigipirate terrorism alert system (whose color-coded alert levels were imitated in the US by the post-9/11 Homeland Security Advisory System). The soldiers wear camouflage army fatigues and carry heavy assault weapons. When I see them patrolling the Chatêlet-Les Halles metro/RER station at the height of rush hour—which is often—, in the midst of hundreds of people—even into the thousands, as this is the biggest underground public transportation hub in the city—, I want to ask them the following questions: if terrorists suddenly went into action in the crowded station, would they open fire with their machine guns, the bullets from which would cut down dozens of commuters in the process? If a bomb were to go off but with no terrorists in sight, what would they do then? Still open fire? If not, then what’s the point of them being there in the first place? Likewise for those patrolling popular places like the Eiffel Tower; if something suddenly happened would they open fire in the midst of all the tourists? I have been tempted on numerous occasions to go up to the soldiers and ask these questions—and also to ask what
idiot responsible official sent them there in the first place—but then thought better of it (they don’t look like they’re there to banter with the public).
It is rather obvious that the main purpose of these patrols is not to protect the population—and certainly not to deter terrorists—but to “reassure” by their presence. It’s all theater, to make people think that the state is there to protect them and respond immediately in the event of a terrorist attack (as if any of the bombings in 1995-96 would have been thwarted if heavily armed soldiers had been present). But I do not feel more secure when I see those soldiers. Not at all. Their assault rifles make me nervous. If I were with these soldiers in, say, a terrorist-infested zone in Mali or Niger, I would feel secure. But not in a Paris metro station during rush hour.
Seriously, I would like to know who were the
idiots officials in the French state who cooked up these Vigipirate patrols and how they explain their utility.
UPDATE: Last week I had the opportunity to talk with a young man (mid 20s) who is preparing the concours to enter the Gendarmerie Nationale. He has served in the army and knows about the organization of the Vigipirate patrols. I put the questions to him posed above. He informed me that the assault rifles of the soldiers patrolling crowded public places are not loaded—the ammunition clips are empty—but that plainclothes police—presumably armed with loaded pistols—are nearby. The soldiers are decoy. He essentially said that those in charge of Vigipirate know what they’re doing; they’re not stupid or reckless. I’ll take his word for it. (December 4th)