Paris attacks: Notes from a wounded city
A homeless Guyanese man living outside on my street is extremely upset about the attacks here in Paris. He told me that while walking around last Friday evening, he turned a corner and suddenly saw men in black shooting at “children” — his word for the beautiful young people in the cafés. He says he hid under a car, and lay there fearing that the terrorists had seen him. I cannot be sure his account is true. But I do know that he has asked the best question about the attacks. At the moment he saw the terrorists, he thought: “With what perception must I perceive this?”
It is the question we should all still be asking. Here in eastern Paris, where most of the attacks took place, this is a time of mood swings and confusion. Yet turn on the televisions and you see politicians and pundits spouting certainty. However ignorant they may be about Paris and France, they profess to know exactly what our problem is and how to solve it. This ignorance is not merely irritating. As we saw in the American response after September 11, it will also probably prove dangerous.
Outwardly, Parisian life is returning to normal. As cafés fill up again (albeit with far fewer tourists), I keep hearing that Parisians are “resilient” or “heroes”. But these are distorting simplifications.
More accurately, we are only starting to process the horror. My doctor, whose office is a kilometre from the Bataclan concert hall, says that on Monday she had expected to see patients complaining of stress or depression. It didn’t happen. However, she adds, after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January it took weeks before people cracked. Initially, adrenalin and communal support sustained them.
Parisian children are beginning to deal with events too. On Monday, in the playground of my children’s primary school some kids boasted of having heard shots from their homes. Maybe they did. On our walk to school on Thursday, my children explained to me the worldview and theories of the afterlife of suicide bombers. Now my nine-year-old daughter is preparing to give a class talk on jihadi terrorism. She has drawn her information from the children’s newspaper Le Petit Quotidien, whose blanket coverage of the attacks includes a helpful page headed, “Des mots pour comprendre le terrorisme islamiste”, or words to understand Islamist terrorism. (The French don’t spend much time shielding kids from reality.)
If ordinary Parisians are struggling to come to terms with events, most politicians have achieved certainty. We have seen this film before: after 14 years of jihadi attacks on western cities, we know the script. The stricken country’s leader — George W Bush in 2001, French president François Hollande now — comes up with a quick, tough, emotionally satisfying response. Mr Hollande proclaimed that “we are at war” and ordered bombing of Isis territory. The French parliament has suspended democracy, enacting a three-month state of emergency.
The pundits, too, have already made their diagnoses. Whatever a commentator’s views, the attacks proved them right. Rightwing hawks see a “war of civilisations”, want the west to turn away the refugees and call for war in the Middle East — all curious echoes of Isis’s views. Meanwhile, many leftists describe the attacks as retribution for the west’s wars in Muslim countries.
The outbreak of certainty is predictable. Politicians want to show instant leadership. (The last thing I wanted to hear after the bloodbath was Donald Trump’s take on our situation, but I got it anyway.) Pundits operate in a thriving ideas economy where the prizes are big speaking fees, TV contracts and book deals. The people with the clearest messages win. Think how many careers in media, politics and the security industry were made by Osama bin Laden. Now Isis is doing the same.
Any commentator still asking, “With what perception must I perceive this?” will not make the big bucks. As the misguided US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq taught us, the emotional days after an attack are the worst time for quick decisions — especially since there is no simple, satisfying solution to Isis.
The reality of Paris is also more complicated than the grand theories being unleashed upon us. The cliché is that terrorism in France — the western country that has suffered the most attacks — is the logical outcome of the French failure to integrate their “Muslim community”.
This argument is dubious. True, many French Muslims live on poor housing estates in grim suburbs. But it is unclear whether the sociology explains the terrorism. London, with its booming economy and pretty good ethnic integration, also produces jihadi terrorists. So does the Islamic oil state Saudi Arabia. Even if France somehow created economic nirvana, it would probably still produce terrorists. Norway does.
Both right and left also oversimplify France’s ethnic situation. The right depicts jihadis fighting a war of civilisation, whereas the left sees a multicultural paradise. In fact Paris has both those things. It also has many unhappy poor, alienated people of Muslim origin who would not dream of shooting anyone; they just dream of office jobs. Then there is the banal reality of millions of people simply trying to live their daily lives. “Métro, boulot, dodo” (subway, job, sleep) doesn’t leave enough free time to fight wars of religion.
The well-known solution
On Wednesday, I stood on the touchline at my children’s football club watching kids and coaches from the big three monotheistic religions have fun together. Depictions of a “Paris intifada” that unites all Muslims would not survive 10 minutes’ contact with local reality. Just ask Grégory Reibenberg, Jewish father of a girl who was at my daughter’s crèche: his Muslim wife, Djamila Houd, was killed in his café, the Belle Equipe.
Or ask the family of two Muslim sisters murdered alongside Houd. One of their brothers, Abdallah Saadi, his face trembling as he struggled not to cry, told French TV channel iTéle: “We have always worked. We are the antithesis of what thousands of weak-minded people might think of — of everything and whatever, really. We are just citizens like everyone. My parents are in absolute distress.” The massacre killed people of all religions and none.
Since 9/11 we have learnt so much about jihadist terrorism, and we have ended up less certain than when we began. Anyone assembling a view needs to absorb what Erik Bleich, an expert on France and race at Middlebury College in Vermont, calls “seemingly conflicting bits of information”. For instance, Mr Bleich says: “Muslims did this in the name of Islam, but most Muslims don’t accept these acts.”
The refugee issue is irritatingly complicated too. Isis might indeed have slipped one of the stadium bombers into the stream of refugees from Syria. Moreover, he may not have been alone. No one can guarantee that every refugee who has arrived in Europe this year is peaceful.
On the other hand, the refugees’ suffering is great; Isis hopes we will shut them out; they can help our economies, and the risk they represent is comparatively small. Americans terrified of Syrian refugees ought to study the figures compiled by Charles Kurzman, sociologist at the University of North Carolina: since 9/11 the US has suffered more than 200,000 murders, of which Muslim-American terrorists committed 50.
Randall Hansen, political scientist at the University of Toronto, asks a pertinent question. “Would the Paris attacks have occurred without refugee involvement? Of course: Isis has plenty of recruits in Europe. And if we leave hundreds of thousands of young men rotting in refugee camps or urban centres in the global south, with no education, no hope, no future, then we will greatly magnify the security threat.” Still, that seems to be the west’s game plan.
When the debate turns to military action, more certainties come pouring out. HL Mencken, the late American satirist, warned: “There is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible and wrong.”
The well-known solution today — the one preferred by both western hawks and Isis — is to go to war with Isis. The parallel cited is the war against Nazi Germany. But Germany was a state. Isis has a faux-state that the west could flatten next week, but Isis is above all a global idea. As we have discovered since 9/11, you cannot bomb away an idea.
Bombing Isis territory will kill lots of Isis members and the civilians they brutalise, yet might not reduce terrorism. “I think [bombing] is going to get rid of Isis,” says Jytte Klausen, counterterrorism expert at Brandeis University, but she adds that bombs will not get rid of terrorism.
“We need to prepare ourselves for a far worse wave of terrorist attacks once we push [Isis] out,” she says. “Those terrorists are going to have to go somewhere — where are they going to go?”
In any case, as the Paris attacks showed, many of them are already here.
To compare Isis to Nazi Germany is to give the outfit undue importance. A better comparison might be with the Northern Irish, German, Italian and Basque terrorist movements that peaked in the 1970s. Cumulatively, they killed thousands of people. They never surrendered. A few of them are still fighting. Arguably, we never defeated them — but we learnt to curb them and to live with them, and eventually they went out of fashion. (Diplomacy worked in Northern Ireland, but doesn’t seem well suited to Isis.) That kind of slow waning may be the best outcome on offer. This is unsatisfying, but then we will never attain zero risk.
An inward cheer
There are some things we can do. Perhaps the most important is better information sharing between western intelligence agencies. It is scandalous that Abdelhamid Abaaoud, Belgian puppet master of the attacks, was not arrested in Greece in January, after raids by security forces in Belgium disrupted his previous plot. He appears to have travelled freely between Syria and Europe for years, says Ms Klausen.
Meanwhile, to avoid giving in to fear, we need to put the danger from Isis into perspective. Even in this deadliest of years in greater Paris, the murder rate will probably end up lower here than in America’s “safest big city”, New York. But as a friend says: “Tell that to your brain.”
Terrorism is a kind of violent branch of the advertising industry: it creates unforgettable images. Then we journalists disseminate the images. I plead guilty: I have spent the week writing about the attacks. My excuse is that I live in eastern Paris. This is my local story. However, I am hoping the work will tail off now and each time another of my foreign colleagues leaves Paris, I cheer inwardly. The attacks need to be covered, but to make them the world’s lead news story for weeks is to join Isis’s PR wing.
The blanket coverage of Paris also reveals the reality that in the global media black lives may matter, but western white lives matter more. Terror attacks in Kenya, Lebanon, Turkey, Nigeria and now Mali get relatively little international attention — one reason why Isis hit the world’s most visited city.
Since the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Parisians have been getting used to terrorism. The sound of sirens has become our background music. My children now hardly notice the policemen with machine guns on their school’s street. My daughter remarked that since she had lived through two terrorist attacks in her own neighbourhood, I at my age must have been through dozens. Not so, I told her.
I have no idea whether growing up like this will damage my children. We may only find out when they are grown up, by which time — although we’ll always have Paris — we may still be fighting jihadi terrorism.