A Letter to French Friends

Dear France,

We've been sad for you since the bloody attacks in Paris. We've watched your resilience with admiration as you've gone through the phases of reacting, mourning, and responding to these outrages.

It all reminds us of ourselves those fourteen years ago--when our own great city was attacked.

You have a chance now to move on from this awful tragedy in ways that are better than the choices we made. So we thought we'd write to share some of the faux pas we made--to, you know, tirer les leçons de nos erreurs.

First, it's great that your response to this has been to come together as a nation. We did that, too. But don't forget as you do that there are people born within your borders who don't feel part of your nation. We forgot that, even though many of them were among the first to volunteer to serve in some way to protect the country.

Second, don't make the mistake of vilifying religion--and especially one religion--because some people claim to act in the name of theirs. We've been doing this lately, and it ends up polarizing our public life dangerously and damagingly along the lines of faith (or non-faith) preferences.

A secularized society loses some important skills for understanding religious commitment and motivation. Religious belief may not be necessary, but it's a mistake to conclude it always leads to violence. There are plenty of people holding on to the teachings of mercy and a peaceful road to justice in all religious communities. They shouldn't be marginalized. You need to find ways of allowing them--even directing them--into the mainstream.

Oh, one more thing. Don't miss the opportunity to turn this moment into an opportunity for everyone to serve, in some way. When the dust of our destroyed towers had settled and we had mourned those who died, our president called on us--to go shopping. We were ready to do more, but we missed the opportunity. Our leaders flinched at asking.

One of the stranger and sadder results of the attacks in Paris is that it will mean that more young, alienated Muslims--from France, the United States, and other places in the West--will feel an attraction to radicalization and start looking for ways to get to Syria.

Yes, partly that's because they're easily seduced by well-produced videos. But it's also because--bizarre though it seems--what they find in the blandishments of ISIS propaganda is the promise of a purpose greater than themselves.

The hard lesson for us out of our own tragedy was that we haven't figured out how to give our young people a higher, broader purpose that would lead them in a better direction. The best we've managed to offer is the aspiration of being a hedge-fund manager, a Silicon Valley unicorn, or an NBA draft pick. We might as well have offered them winning the lottery as a life purpose.

We seem to have lost a language for speaking of a common purpose that can bind us together--and that we can hold up for the next generation to aspire toward. We're very good at tearing down any next effort to describe that. We're far more enamored of our divisions. Come to think of it, it seems like our divisions are our highest purpose these days. At least it sure sounds like that if you listen to our presidential candidates.

Maybe French is still a language that can speak of uniting purposes. If so, maybe once you've found the words you can teach them to us.

Nous vous prions d'accepter nos sincères condoléances (yes, really) --

--Vos amis Americaines