The horrific attacks executed by ISIS foot soldiers in Paris brings a new face of this menace to the West. This face more closely resembles al-Shabaab's brazen attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, or the attack on India's famed Oberoi Hotel in Mumbai carried out by Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, or the theater siege in Beslan, perpetrated by Chechens at the direction of Shamil Basayev. The Paris attacks feel different and have struck a profound chord among Western powers and the world - this chord let out a sorrowful note, one of strength and solace, but not surprise.
Whereas the tragic Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris on January 7, 2015 narrowly targeted a controversial newspaper killing 12 people and injuring 11, what was really at stake was the ideal of freedom of speech, despite all the controversies Charlie Hebdo stirred. The 11/13 attack, however, targeted a much more mundane activity, one that is essential to society and a global aspiration for all of humanity - the expectation of carrying out the activities of daily life (attending a concert, dining al fresco or attending a sporting event) in safety. The coordination and paramilitary nature were particularly harrowing, but in many ways, we should not be surprised that this has occurred in Paris, any more than we should be surprised if it occurs in any major city anywhere in the world. Terrorism thrives on symbolism. A perverse reorientation of the world in the here and now and the hereafter. Paris is as much a symbol of democracy and secularism, as it is a symbol of the struggle for Europe's multicultural future. With 7.5% of its population of Middle Eastern or North African descent, the more visceral response of closing borders and banishing Muslims will only fan the flames of this conflict and not still hearts.
At issue are the semantics of terrorism and how the political, legal and financial system responds to these tragic events. The scale and audacity of 9/11 not only shook the world to its core igniting the global War on Terror stirring up a hornet's nest of hatred from Afghanistan to the Levant, it also profoundly challenged insurers and their legal definitions of this new normal. After much wrangling about whether claims should be covered and whether 9/11 was one event or multiple events (from a legal and insurance perspective), terrorism has taken on a very specific meaning. In insurance legalese, terrorism is defined as the threat or use of violence in an attempt to coerce the public and government. As a result, countries are most likely to reach for their machine guns or drone controls, rather than mental health or development institutions in combating this scourge - at home and abroad. Military solutions alone are insufficient, as you cannot kill an idea with a tank or a smart bomb any more than you can cure economic hopelessness with barbed wire. Our readiness in the West to export our military to attack hotbeds of terror, should be tempered by the reality (as seen in Paris) that we may very well import the backlash or ignite the vile imaginations of our own citizenry.
As far as the public are concerned, whatever the motives, the outcome of mass casualty events are always the same - people are terrorized, lives are senselessly claimed and policymakers are left scrambling for answers and revenge. Rather than worrying about the definition of terrorism and its motives on the front-end, we should more broadly define mass casualty events for their tragic frequency and for building a broader set of tools (legal, clinical, political, financial and, at times, military) in mounting a global defense. The outcome of Anders Breivik's callous assault in Norway was a terrorized public and more than 77 lost lives and hundreds of injuries. Similarly, America's wanton gun violence and open assaults like the biker violence in Waco, Texas, and inner city violence plaguing Chicago and Baltimore, is the same - a terrorized public and persistent economic harm. The young survivors of Sandy Hook have been indelibly scarred by the terror visited upon that placid Connecticut community for the rest of their lives. Countries the West calls allies met out barbaric forms of justice (many borrowed by ISIS) with little or no due process and we search for diplomatic responses not military ones.
From what we know, the majority of the perpetrators of the attacks on Paris are European nationals. Others are likely to have exploited the free flow of goods, services and people that create the risk-reward tradeoff from globalization and economic integration. There is no easy defense against threats to soft targets and the delicate balancing act of civil liberties on the one hand with state control on the other will be eternally challenged in the era of manmade risk. What is clear, however, is that we need new solutions for the treatment, identification and prevention of mass casualty events - from their earliest proximate cause, mental health, to the imminent pre-execution phase - whatever the motives. As President Obama pointed out in his 15th public consolation following mass gun violence in the U.S., more lives have been claimed by gun violence than terrorism. Richard Reid, the failed shoe bomber, tries to blow up an airplane with his shoes and the whole world subjects themselves to immediate, potentially ineffective airport security measures costing billions. Thousands of lives are lost in other forms of mass casualty events and little or no change is engendered.
Much like identity theft and cyber risk are parts of the tradeoff we make for the convenience of online shopping and an electronically connected world, sadly tragedies like 11/13, the recent bomb blasts in Beirut and the downing of Metrojet 9268 in the Sinai Peninsula, are all part of the tradeoffs we make in the age of globalization. Shrinking the world and retreating behind national borders and broad disengagement may make us safer from trans-national terrorism, while heralding a return to the much riskier days of Great Wars between nations. Terrorism and the hopeless people who perpetrate mass casualty events have created strange bedfellows from Washington, Paris, Moscow and Beirut. A globally unified response, one that appropriately utilizes coordinated military strength and is equally adroit in long term development can reverse the tide of this scourge. An idea, however hateful and misaligned, can only be totally eradicated by another idea. How the world responds - and respond we must - to this new face of trans-national terrorism will determine whether we finally begin make gains against this menace.