Paris attacks: Time for engagement, not fearful retreat

The terrorist assault in Paris in Paris that has killed at least 129 people is civilisation’s worst nightmare: indiscriminate attacks in the heart of a capital city on peaceful people, guilty of nothing more than enjoying a meal or listening to a band. Coming days after suicide bomb blasts in Beirut, it is clear we are living through another spasm of Islamist terrorism, just at the moment when the extremists’ badlands in Syria and Iraq are under threat.

The immediate reaction of the civilised world must be: collective courage in the face of such outrage; heightened vigilance and intelligence sharing; a targeted military response; and international solidarity with the French people.

The lines of blood donors queueing outside Parisian hospitals testify to the resolve and humanity of this great city’s population. The mass deployment of troops on France’s streets and the imposition of a state of emergency are the necessary response to restore public security. The expressions of sympathy from abroad are heartfelt. For so many foreigners, France is their second homeland: Nous sommes tous Français.

As ever with such attacks — in New York and Washington in 2001, Madrid in 2004, London in 2005, Mumbai in 2008 and Paris earlier this year — the terrorists are intent on killing ideals as well as individuals. They are targeting the values of open societies, of individual liberties and collective rights.

Values should be defended, rather than diluted, amid the clamour of populist politicians offering simplistic — and often counter-productive — solutions. More powers may need to be granted to the police, border and intelligence agencies across Europe to counter extremism. But they should only ever be done so in the context of full democratic debate and accountability.

The attacks come at a moment of acute vulnerability for Europe as it struggles to cope with a migrant and refugee crisis originating in north Africa and the Middle East. Millions of desperate people have been fleeing the kinds of mindless barbarity now visited on the streets of Paris. Europe is struggling to pick a path between humanitarian generosity and hard-headed pragmatism in dealing with this unprecedented crisis.

What is certain is that Poland’s ugly linkage of the Paris attacks to Europe’s migration policy is not the place to start. But tighter border controls, albeit short of formally suspending the Schengen agreement providing for free movement, should be on the table.

The medium-term response in France — and elsewhere in Europe — must be to address the clear alienation of a small minority of its own citizens. President François Hollande has already acknowledged evidence of complicity in the attacks from within France. Further integration, rather than the demonisation of minority communities, is the only sensible, if difficult, response.

A long-term policy has to include Syria, where similar atrocities have become a daily tragedy. Isis, which has claimed it was behind the attacks, has established a stranglehold over parts of the country. The group’s mystique is that of a ruthless Sunni organisation, which brooks no opposition and contemplates no compromise, peddling a millenarian ideology that transcends both geography and time.

But Isis territory in Syria is coming under pressure from the US air force and Syrian Kurdish militia, now poised to push south towards Raqqa, the group’s stronghold. Outside powers should discuss co-ordinated action to destroy this totalitarian menace on the ground.

The G20 summit meeting in Turkey should show equal resolve to help protect the civilians in Syria, who have been so traumatised by Isis and the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Some 3m Syrians have fled abroad. More comfort and hope must be given to these people.

That means that outside powers will have to push even harder for a political transition that attempts to distinguish between the interests of the Syrian state and those of the Assad regime. This is a time for further engagement with the world’s most troubled regions, rather than for a fearful retreat.

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