The tragedy in Paris has triggered a strong emotional response. Events of this grisly nature usually do. The depth of feeling across a wide range of persons and cultures owes much to its being an act of terror in an age that has become largely defined as the "terrorism era." The lingering sensitivities from 9/11 combine with the rooted fears of Islamist acts of violence to intensify the effect. Were 17 people murdered under more prosaic circumstances, it may still have been headline news but without the resonance or outpouring of sentiment that this crime has produced. Moreover, the impulse of so many to engage in acts of moral witness has not been seen since September 11, 2011.
National leaders and representatives of diverse communities, as well as individual citizens, feel a need to declare themselves. That feeling represents in part a natural response of humane solidarity in the face of an assault on dignity and decency. There also is a keen desire to build symbolic barriers against a pattern of reciprocal hostility and violence from taking shape. The latter is especially true among the French.
The phenomenon prompts soul-searching as well because acts of this sort are now commonplace in other countries: Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya the Congo, and Gaza. Many more have been killed for similar reasons by similar criminals in those places. We in the West have become inured to massacres inspired by sectarian hate of one kind or another. We have not become inured to our citizens being slaughtered - whether beheaded in Syria or gunned down on our own soil - by these fanatics. Hence, the discrepant reactions.
This is not a simple matter of racism -- as in the old days. Rather, it is a matter of cultural distance reinforced by the inescapable callousness that comes with repetition. Too, Western societies have lived in a state of anticipatory fear since 9/11. That dread has been kept alive by occasional acts of terrorism, as in London, Madrid and Boston. The rise of ISIL has been accompanied by a spate of anxious speculation that residents of Western countries who have been drawn to the new theater of jihad could return home dedicated to committing mayhem. In this context, the Paris killings have made tangible otherwise abstract fears. Emotional release follows - emotions of anger (revenge for some), sympathy for the victims, a bond of solidarity across religious lines in an affirmation of shared humanity.
What happens next? How do these sentiments get expressed in practical action -- if at all? The intangible effects, i.e. their influence on attitudes and behavior, is most difficult to predict. Since the emotional responses will not be uniform, tracing the paths of influence to eventual behavioral outcomes, the consequences are not immediately discernible. In France, there are big political and policy questions hanging in the balance. Will the events be to the electoral advantage or disadvantage of the Front National led by Marine Le Pen which has been steadily winning supporters? Will the hardening of restrictive policies aimed at illegal immigrants continue or be attenuated? What of relations generally between Muslims and non-Muslim French people which have become increasingly tense? The same questions could be asked across Europe albeit with less immediacy.
Then there are the foreign policy implications. Paris will not be encapsulated as a human tragedy -- nor viewed as a long expected (and probably unavoidable) terrorist act horrible in itself but offering no new insights into our predicament. Already, the press and pundits are making pronouncements and taking positions as to what the incident reveals about the current international scene and what should be done. Predictably, they lack illumination. Indeed, they are misleading for the most part.
Let's take a look at the ideas that are in circulation.
1. The attacks constitute a major failure of the French intelligence and security services. Since Said Kouachi had been designated as a potential threat and placed on France's equivalent of a "watch list," effective surveillance should have prevented the killings at Charlie Hebdo - or so the argument goes. That judgment, though, cannot be made unless we know how many people are in that category, the priorities they were assigned and why, and what available police resources are. It may well have been impossible to provide round-the-clock surveillance of the Kouachis along with everyone else on the list. Furthermore, the operation itself involved only two people and seemingly did not require elaborate planning. The fewer the participants and the shorter the lead time, the harder it is to pick up signs of impending actions and to act on them.
The French authorities claim to have averted several terrorist operations over the past months. We do not know what their nature was, how genuine, serious and imminent. Assessing their performance in this case cannot be confidently done without that information.
2. Al-Qaeda and ISIL have launched an attack on the West that raises the stake in the struggle to eliminate them. Yet, there is no evidence whatsoever that the killers were ordered to undertake the mission, that it was planned and overseen on an organizational basis, and that its "success" demonstrates the sophisticated capabilities of those militant outfits to strike the West at home. All that we know is that one of the two brothers, Said Kouachi, spent two weeks with AQAP in Yemen back in 2011. What sort of training he received is unclear. What is obvious is that it doesn't take more than three years to put in motion an operation of this sort.
In addition, the terrorist skills that they demonstrated were rudimentary and eclipsed by their amateurism: little if any previous reconnaissance of the site; no getaway car or serious plan of escape; leaving ID in the car. Were they a 'sleeper cell" of some sort secreted into Paris and instructed to lie low awaiting a signal to act? Hardly credible. Members of a "sleeper cell" are implanted to perform a high value mission either conceived in advance or activated to deal with a major development/danger/opportunity. A fresh batch of blasphemous cartoons from Charlie Hebdo doesn't qualify.
As for the third terrorist, Amedy Coulibaly , he apparently never dealt directly with either AQAP or ISIL. His video claim that he acted in the name of ISIL comes across as a self-inflating attempt to magnify and dramatize his acts. Someone with a long criminal record, diagnosed as a borderline psychotic with strong sociopathic tendencies and a violent personality, he converted to Islam and became radicalized in prison a few years ago.
AQAP of course has been quick to declare themselves responsible for the attacks. Publicity is the name of the game for Islamist terrorist groups who need funding, need recruits and -- in this case -- are in danger of being overshadowed by ISIL.
3. The killers' motivations were those of religious fanatics. In fact, they were at once religious and political. At the time of the elder Kouachi's conviction in 2005 for facilitating the trafficking of French Muslims to fight in Iraq against the Americans, he stated that he had been deeply offended by the pictures from Abu Ghraib depicting American soldiers humiliating Muslims. That aggravated his hostility toward the invasion and occupation of both Iraq and Afghanistan set against the backdrop of Washington's unrestrained backing for Israel's abuse of the Palestinians. A similar avowal came from those English Muslims responsible for the London subway bombings. This aspect of the Paris affair has been slighted in most media coverage. Mentioned in initial dispatches, it has disappeared from The New York Times coverage among other news outlets.
4. Within a few days, an alleged link between the brothers and Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed by a C.I.A. drone strike in 2011, became a front page theme of the NYT's reporting. A bold headline declared that: In New Era of Terrorism, a Voice From Yemen Echoes.
There is no evidence to support that contention. The story is built on a series of unvalidated suppositions. One, Said had been associated with al-Qaidi in Yemen sometime in 2011. Two, Awalki may still have been alive then. Three, Awalki allegedly headed AQAP "External Affairs" wing; Said Kouachi and France were "external." Four, Awalki, "has remained a leading influence on jihadists." (External or internal the NYT does not say).
The significance of this story is not its verifiability; it is the role it is playing in an apparent campaign to use the Paris killings to validate and to sustain a certain narrative about the "War on Terror." The narrative's core precepts are readily recognizable. We face a massive terrorist threat from al-Qaeda and now ISIL. They are powerful, well-organized, have a global reach, and are targetting the United States and its allies. They hate us because we embody freedom, tolerance, and democracy. Our military and political actions in the Islamic world have nothing to do with the great animosity they have toward us. We must be vigilant and we must take the initiative in "crushing" these threats. Extra-judicial assassinations like that of Awlaki are an essential ingredient of American strategy. This WOT must go inexorably until the threat of further terrorist acts like Paris is eradicated.
Paris does not inaugurate a "new era of Terrorism." It changes absolutely nothing in the big picture of Islamic terrorism or Middle East politics or American/Western policy orientations. Outside of France, everything is pretty much as before. That includes perpetuation of the fables and fantasies that are the enemy of sound and sensible policies.