France’s “September 11” arrived a few months late, on a Friday the 13th. I took the picture a few days afterwards at our city hall because the juxtaposition of the two signs pretty much sums up the ambiguous response of the public at large. The sign on the left—the one with the heart and the Arabic script—says, “My heart is not at war, my heart is for peace. We are all human. No to terrorists!” The sign on the right says “France is at war!” Because this city is both a departmental capital and a university town (and one with a sizable Muslim population to boot), I’m hearing more of the former sentiment than the latter, but of course, it really depends on the person to whom you’re talking. If you asked one of my colleagues at the university what we should do, they would probably respond in a manner similar to your average American professor: we’re all people, we need to let the “refugees” in because they’re running from the same folks who did this to us, and I’m sure you all pretty much know the rest by heart. If you asked my mother-in-law the same question, she would probably blister your ears with a response that would make Marine LePen sound like Barack Obama.
Me, I’m afraid that what is going to happen is that we’re going to repeat the policy failures that came out of the Charlie Hebdo massacre back in January. And apropos of nothing, did you know that the spectacular Charlie Hebdo/Hypercacher Jewish Market attack didn’t exactly come out of the blue? I’m pretty sure that the only people who were surprised about that were our government officials and people who don’t watch the news, because in the six weeks leading up to the attacks, there was a terrorist attack at a police station in Tours on December 20 by a dual national who had recently converted to Islam, followed the next day by an vehicular assault by a man shouting “Allahu Akhbar” in five neighborhoods in Dijon that the government attributed to the driver’s mental illness, followed the next day by a second, similar automobile attack at the Christmas market in Dijon, which the government dismissed as the act of a mentally ill driver while simultaneously proclaiming that France was suffering an unprecedented and “grave danger” from terrorism. Three weeks later, the Charlie Hebdo attack occurred. The government’s response: A national day of mourning, repeated reassurances to the Muslim community, more than 50 arrests and a dozen prosecutions of people charged with being “apologists for terrorism,” and for a while, a more visible military presence in public, primarily protecting government buildings, synagogues, and tourist attractions in Paris.
On the local level, we saw individual schools implementing much tighter security—the gates to my children’s Catholic school are now permanently closed and parents are buzzed in if they arrive at any time other than the beginning or end of a school day; similarly, the lycée where I work part-time shut its gates immediately, but waited until the beginning of this school year to implement a card-entry system for students, teachers, and employees. That’s pretty much it. You can still get on a train going just about anywhere but Britain with zero screening and zero security other than the presence of military in the major cities’ stations (to the dismay of the passengers on the Thalys that was attacked—and saved mostly by Americans—this summer). There is still not much in the way of security in public places such as shopping malls, libraries, and the outdoor markets that the French love so much. Until last week, there was pretty much no security at theaters—something that has now changed, at least at the opera and the larger theaters.
Basically, I hear people throwing around terms like “France’s 9/11” and I get the feeling that we’ve been here before, we’ve done this before. The signs up all over town urging people to fight the terrorists by hoisting a glass of wine in a popular local tourist area reminds me of George Bush telling us to support America by going to the mall. A president with a 16% approval rating before the attacks declares a war on jihadism and calls for a “global military coalition with France at its helm.” “Temporary” governmental powers, such as a ban on public gatherings in Paris, that are now being extended, perhaps to be extended again. Does all of this sound a little bit familiar? Of course, although the United States has experienced a few smaller-scale attacks since 2001 (such as Nidal Hasan’s “workplace violence,” a classification that even Mother Jones disputes), American civilians have, for the most part, remained safe against terrorism. I do wonder if world leaders aren’t just playing a game of whack-a-mole with these guys—cut them off from the United States, boom they start killing people in London, Toronto, Madrid, Paris instead. And the American government’s job is to keep Americans safe, Britons care about Britons, and the next attack is in some city that never expected it.
All that said, Hollande and his government are proceeding to make some new and different mistakes, most notably with respect to our foolish agreement to take 30,000 “Syrian” “refugees” even though we now know that at least two of the attackers traveled to France through Greece, slipping in with the crowd. Even though we know—from the Pew Research Center—that only 20% of the refugees are actually from Syria, that 72% of them are men, and that men aged 18-34 represent 43% of asylum seekers. So we’re planning to let in thousands of military-aged men, most of whom are not escaping ISIS in Syria, and the remainder of whom are apparently mostly content to let their women and children stay in Syria and take their chances. And by the way, you can buy a “Syrian passport” for as little as $250. How is opening the gates a good idea?
To those who say “There were only 8 attackers in Paris! Such a small number compared to the thousands who need our help!”—I respond that this is a country in which 40% of the doctors use homeopathy— the pseudoscience that claims it is possible to obtain a substantial reaction from potions whose active ingredients are diluted to nearly imperceptible levels. Another mistake that we are making relates to militants who are already in the country: unlike in the States, French security services can and often do remove suspected militants from our records of people linked to terrorist organizations. Those files should be permanent. Third, not only did France ignore advance warnings of the possibility of an attack (shades of 9/11 again), we have been sharing essentially open borders with countries such as Belgium, which has a security service that is underfunded and overwhelmed, yet apparently we did not effectively exchange information with that country—which served as a staging area for the Paris attacks, apparently for that very reason. If we want to live in a United States of Europe (me, I’m skeptical), we might do better to listen to Ben Franklin’s warning that “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” (Or, in somewhat stronger language, Bassem Braiki, a Muslim rapper from eastern France who has called for his co-religionists to report extremists.) If we’re going to have open-ish internal borders, Angela Merkel cannot unilaterally decide to invite more than half a million people knowing that there is no way to contain them in her own country. Nor should we continue to consider EU membership applications from countries such as Serbia (home of my ancestors and probably dozens of cousins) and Turkey, both of which are sending a relatively large number of people.
Ultimately, what is the most frightening is the prospect that there is no solution, there is no good answer. Bomb Raqqa this month, get bombed by “homegrown” terrorists next month. Seal our borders for real, kill our economy (well, the part of it that isn’t already dead) and get kicked out of the EU. Extend the current state of national emergency—warrantless searches with few limits, no public gatherings, Internet blocking by the government, house arrest without trial—at at some point, France becomes more like China than, well, France. Live in fear? Same problem. What we tell ourselves is the right and just thing to do for our country, our children, our future—no dithering, no “return to normal” like after Charlie Hebdo—well, that’s going to determine whether this time, things will be different.