[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below] [5th update below] [6th update below] [7th update below] [8th update below]
I’ve been in a daze, along with everyone else here, over what has happened. And having slept fitfully for maybe three hours last night isn’t helping to clear my head. Nor is hearing the accounts of traumatized eyewitnesses on the radio and TV, or watching the mobile phone videos taken from the scenes of the attacks in their immediate aftermath. I can’t wrap my head around this. The terrorist attacks happened in corners of Paris I know well, where I often find myself, and where many people I know often find themselves (and where some live). And where my wife and I could have found ourselves last night, not to mention our daughter had she been in Paris (she’s in university this year down south; and we’re already learning that there are two degrees of separation between us and persons who were killed or wounded last night). In the early evening we went to an art expo at the Fondation Cartier, after which we had a drink at a fine café on nearby Rue Daguerre (14th arrondissement), a café much like the ones targeted last night (we were sitting in the enclosed terrace, looking out over the bustling pedestrian street). I had initially thought that we could have dinner at a Mexican restaurant in the 10th arr.—some 200 meters from where the first attack took place—but as I had already had a late lunch at a restaurant (Hunan) and thus wasn’t hungry—nor was my wife, who took a dish at the café—we decided to head back to our tranquil banlieue, getting home around 9:00, about twenty minutes before the first attack. I watched several minutes of the France-Germany friendly match but missed the explosions, learning about the attacks on the Internet during half time.
In lieu of a lengthy analysis—which would be premature at this early point—a few comments. First, where the attacks took place. The 10th and 11th arrondissements were not chosen at random. This part of Paris—and the eastern part of the city more generally—was historically populaire (working class) but has been transformed over the past two decades. It’s become a hip area, with an active nightlife and cool bars and restaurants frequented mainly by young people (20s/early 30s): hipsters, students, and young professionals, and of all ethnic origins. The evening ambiance in that part of the city is great. And it’s more lively that what I’ve seen in London. The Islamic State terrorists targeted that area precisely because of what it is and symbolizes. As my daughter (age 21) told me on the phone today, the young people who hang out there—and where she goes with friends on weekend evenings when in town—are the best of France’s generation of the future—politically liberal, open-minded, tolerant, and creative. One commentary in English I’ve come across, by Los Angeles-based Parisian Manu Saadia, indeed makes this point.
Second, though only one of the eight dead terrorists has been formally identified as I write, there can be no doubt that the operation was conceived and led by Frenchmen—by persons who grew up in the Paris area, have an intimate knowledge of the city, and are no doubt French citizens from birth. Non-French jihadists could have never hatched this plot. One may also safely assume that the terrorists were radicalized not in mosques or by jihadist imams but via the Internet, and that most, if not all of them, have been in Syria or some other MENA war zone. The sale and private possession of assault weapons are, as one knows, illegal in France, though they can be had via traffickers (mainly from the Balkans). But to learn to use them in the way the terrorists did last night involves training and practice that would be difficult to do in France without being detected, but that they would obviously get in Syria. So France and other European states, in protecting themselves from the Islamic State death cult, absolutely need to shut down, to the extent possible, the route to Syria via Turkey, by, entre autres, formally telling the Turks to stop admitting EU nationals with national ID cards only (and not passports), to issue visas at their borders, and to agree—in return for the substantial aid Turkey will be receiving from the EU to deal with the refugees there—to a discreet European police presence working with their Turkish counterparts on the Syrian border. This won’t entirely solve the problem but it will help a great deal.
Third—and something I was thinking last night—is the huge failure this represents on the part of the French intelligence services. For such a complex, coordinated sequence of terrorist attacks—and involving at least eight, and certainly more, persons—to happen in the heart of Paris, less than a year after Charlie Hebdo-Hyper Cacher and without the police or intelligence apparatus getting wind of it, is a debacle for the French state. And particularly in view of the reinforced Vigipirate deployment since the attacks in January, with ever more soldiers in jungle fatigues with their machine guns—that may or may not be loaded (which would be incredibly stupid either way)—on the streets and transportation hubs. Vigipirate, like the TSA in the US, is useless security theater almost exclusively designed to reassure the public. And it’s a huge waste of money and of the soldiers’ time and training; and, as we have seen, it can’t thwart a mega terrorist attack. But Vigipirate will, of course, only be reinforced. No president of the republic or prime minister will dare rethink it, let alone scrap.
Fourth, the reaction of the public to this attack is likely to be different from the ones in January. In the latter, there was a big rally the evening of the 7th at the Place de la République and with the banner reading “Not Afraid.” People are now afraid. And then there was the “Je suis Charlie” and that was countered by the “Je ne suis pas Charlie,” by those who did not like Charlie Hebdo or identify with the January 11th marches—and this included a sizable portion of France’s 4+ million-strong Muslim population. There is no such cleavage now. Viewing the comments threads of two virulent, high-profile “Je ne suis pas Charlie”-type Facebook pages I follow, Oumma.com and the Parti des Indigènes de la République, since last night has revealed a markedly different tone from what one normally gets from the fans—French Muslims and/or Maghrebis in their near totality—of those two pages—conspiracy theories, vitriol, and hate: toward France, America, and, bien évidemment, “Zionists”—and particularly after the attacks last January. Even the more alienated, resentful members of that population are genuinely horrified by what happened last night and know that they are eventual targets of terrorism along with everyone else. On this, a friend posted on social media this tract from the Islamic State, telling Muslims in the West that, in effect, they must either adhere to the IS and its conception of Islam or “apostatize” and adopt the “kufri” (infidel) religion of the West. In other words, Muslims in France must get off the fence and choose their camp. It goes without saying that, if presented with that choice, the huge majority will side with the “kuffars.” As they say, it’s a no brainer.
As a reminder, on Thursday the Islamic State staged a terrorist attack in Beirut’s southern suburbs—the Dahiya—that killed over forty people. The Dahiya is entirely populated by Shi’ite Muslims and where state power is exercised by Hizbullah, not the Lebanese state. Ergo, the Islamic State death cult is as great a threat—when, concretely speaking, not more of one—to Muslims than it is to non-Muslims.
The fear level in France is going to increase, no doubt about it, as will the repressive capacity of the state (which results axiomatically when a country is “at war” (en guerre), as President Hollande and everyone else is now saying France is. And then I, personally, have to fear for—or at least worry about—how what has happened will affect my own life. I teach in programs for American university students in Paris, but if those students for next semester and beyond cancel their Paris plans en masse, then I will likely be out of a job come January (and along with many other colleagues). That would suck. But then, what are my little problems compared with all those who were seriously wounded last night or lost loved ones?
I have comments, or at least things to say, about the impact all this will have on French politics but as it’s premature—and maybe a little unseemly—to be speculating on that at the present moment, I’ll save it for another time.
UPDATE: The New Yorker has posted three excellent commentaries: Alexandra Schwartz, “Ghostly Paris” (the description of the quartiers where the attacks took place is particularly good); Adam Gopnik, “Terror strikes in Paris;” and Philip Gourevitch, “The Paris attacks: Aftermath and prelude.”
Ellen in the comments thread below made the rather obvious observation—but which didn’t occur to me—that the attacks happened along or near the route of the January 11th Charlie Hebdo march. This could hardly have been a coincidence.
2nd UPDATE: See the homage to Paris by the well-known comic artist Joann Sfar after the attacks, “Fluctuat nec mergitur” (“tossed by the waves but not sunk,” which is the motto of Paris).
3rd UPDATE: My friend Claire Berlinski has a post, “Fluctuat Nec Mergitur,” on the Ricochet blog, in which she discusses my post (and quibbles with a couple of my points).
4th UPDATE: Michales Moutselos, a sharp political scientist and specialist of France and immigration, posted this on my Facebook page
I just wanted to add a bit to the line of thought about the area [where the attacks happened]. I lived there for 5 months (at Chemin Vert) and went jogging very frequently on Bd Richard Lenoir which has frankly become a bit of a carnage strip. Very very familiar places. Anyways, three hypotheses: a) the place has the closest connections to Seine-Saint Denis and the highways to Belgium; b) there are several intersecting Boulevards that do not get traffic jams as much as the ones further west, while parking for a few minutes is actually easy c) what you suggested, that this has become THE place to live, work and have fun for the young and the creative. Assuming jihadists don’t care about government or business targets (or assuming it is too unsafe to target these things), but want to strike the bobos this is the area they would go for.
Good observations. The area was a soft target, easier to hit in addition to its symbolic value.
5th UPDATE: Sciences Po prof Jean-Pierre Filiu has an essay in Politico.eu, “ISIL’s French infiltration: Why France must avoid the Islamic State’s deadly labyrinth.”
6th UPDATE: Olivier Roy has an op-ed in the NYT, “The attacks in Paris reveal the strategic limits of ISIS.” And see Paul Krugman’s excellent column, “Fearing fear itself.” The lede: “Terrorists won’t bring down Western civilization, and the tradeoffs we make to counter it should not include giving in to the panic they hope to create.”
7th UPDATE: My blogging confrère Arthur Goldhammer has a commentary up on The American Prospect website, “Paris, Friday the Thirteenth.” The lede: “Terrorists’ new target: places where regular people go for joie de vivre to eat, drink and unwind.”
8th UPDATE: Justin E.H. Smith, who teaches philosophy at the University of Paris-VII, has a piece in Slate, “Why did the killers target the Eagles of Death Metal concert?” The lede: “They attacked a young, multiethnic, bohemian vision of Paris that they cannot comprehend.”