The terrorist attacks in Paris last Friday were shocking. A week later, the shock has not worn off. In several places across the city armed men fired upon helpless people, then blew themselves up. In the Bataclan nightclub they first told everyone to lie down. People lay down, as they were told. Then the men started to shoot them.
Anomalously, for 2015, no video has yet surfaced of the shootings, but it is not so hard to imagine what they looked like because ISIS has been so scrupulous about recording its shooting sprees elsewhere. On YouTube, which still scours its videos for the stray female nipple, you can take your pick of ISIS videos in which helpless, pleading Iraqis and Syrians are shot while standing, or kneeling, or lying down like the patrons of the Bataclan. In one video the captives, blindfolded with their hands bound behind their backs, are hustled over to a ledge by a riverside. A masked man then shoots them in the head, after which they are dumped in the river. Man after man after man is shot this way.
In the immediate aftermath of the Paris attacks, as a mass outpouring of grief took place online and at French embassies across the world, some people wondered why a suicide bombing in Beirut the day before had not received nearly so much attention. This is a worthwhile question. Part of the answer lies in the fact that (these days, at least) we are not used to seeing these kinds of attacks in Paris. We are used to seeing them in the Middle East, even if Beirut is no longer embroiled in a civil war. But we are also used to seeing them in America. When Adam Lanza killed twenty children and six adults in Sandy Hook, CT, that was shocking, easily as shocking as Paris, and this country came as close as it has in a long time to passing gun reform (it failed). When Dylann Roof shot nine black parishioners in a church in Charleston, this too was shocking—racial violence in the US is usually carried out by the police. But when the guy in Colorado shot up a movie theater in Colorado and when another guy in Oregon shot up a writing workshop, that, frankly, was not very shocking at all. It’s possible that if there’s another attack or two like this in Paris, we’ll soon learn to stop being shocked as well.
It’s important too that Paris is such a frequently filmed and photographed city. Even those who have not been there know Paris well. The distinctive Parisian awning above Le Carillon, a restaurant attacked by the terrorists on Friday, was immediately recognizable: if it had been somewhere else, it would have been as an imitation of Paris. But there’s also no question that for many people in the West the residents of Paris are more “like” them than the residents of Beirut, and easier to grieve for.
As the days go by we can watch the reaction continue to unfold. Everyone knew that the anti-immigration parties in Europe would be strengthened by the attacks, but we forgot momentarily that we had a thriving anti-immigration party, the Republican Party, right here at home. Their response has been impressive in its ingenuity. The idea of barring Syrian refugees from individual states, or asking them to prove that they’re Christian, is really something; illegal, unenforceable, and yet rhetorically effective, it is a quintessential move in the Republican “culture war.” Obama’s semi-jeering response—“Apparently they’re scared of widows and orphans coming into the United States of America”—has been good, and yet, as always, his very reasonableness, his bemusement at the idiocy of the Republicans, seems to work against him. The tide of intolerance is rising anyway.
In his brief remarks immediately after the attacks and in his press conference two days later in Turkey, Obama was, as usual, very good but not quite great. “France is our oldest ally,” he said, invoking French support, both principled and opportunistic, for the colonies in their 18th-century struggle against Britain. And in the press conference he was again that rare thing, a voice of reason, asking what, hypothetically, people who wanted to put (more) boots in the ground in Syria would suggest if Yemen was the source of the next attack. Do we go in there as well? You had the sad sense, listening to him, that we would not see his like again. He has just a year left until the next election; after that, two months as a lame duck. And then someone else will be president, and it won’t be him.
But Obama missed greatness when he started talking about “values.” “This is an attack not just on Paris, it’s an attack not just on the people of France,” he said, “this is an attack on all of humanity and the universal values that we share.” Further on in the speech he invoked the famous slogan of the French Revolution, “liberty, equality, brotherhood,” as if to stress that the values he spoke of were Western values, forged in the crucible of European history. A few days later, I heard a Frenchwoman on NPR explain how she was telling her small child about the attacks. I am telling him, she said, that it wasn’t just an attack on a group of Parisians, but an attack on our very ideals.
I confess I can’t understand this. The only relevant value here is that you should not kill people; you should not kill them at a concert in Paris, at a church in Charleston, at a mosque in Mosul, at a hospital in Kunduz, on the streets of Grozny. This is not a value that ISIS holds, but that does not make it some kind of exclusively Western value. Humanity did not need the French Revolution to tell us that killing someone was the ultimate sin. (And in fact for a time the French Revolution, as we know, turned France, and then Europe, into a slaughterhouse.) By invoking “universal values,” by which was meant “Western values exported to the rest of the world,” Obama lost the chance to say something truly transformative. The next day, in defense of its values, France stepped up its bombing of Raqqa, in Syria, where ISIS is nominally headquartered.
What to do about ISIS? I don’t have any answers. The “serious” proposals from responsible people—safe havens, “arm and equip,” even the Kurds sweeping into non-Kurdish territory to wipe out ISIS—seem a lot like fantasies, and dangerous fantasies at that. Can the Turks be prevented from bombing the Kurds? Can the Russians be persuaded to drop their insistence on Assad? Can the moderate rebels make sure not to give any more weapons to al Nusra (a.k.a. “al Qaeda in Syria”)? Would Hezbollah be all right with smashing ISIS and then quietly going home? All of us playing Risk, at no risk to ourselves. Meanwhile the bombs continue to drop and people continue to die. Vos guerres, nos morts, as some on the French left have been saying. Your wars; our deaths.
So what should we do? I think we should continue to grieve. And then we should think. As the Israeli poet Meir Wieseltier wrote in 1986, we don’t know what action the dead would call for. And it may not be what our politicians believe. In Joshua Cohen’s translation:
If one day I die from the bullet of a child—
a Palestinian who crosses over to the north—
or from the blast of a grenade he throws,
or from a bomb he detonates in the midst of the market,
while I’m checking the price of cucumbers, don’t dare say
that my blood justifies your own sins,
that my loosed eyes legitimate your blindness,
that my flayed guts lend support
to the impossibility of “talks”—that it’s only possible
to talk with guns, in interrogations, curfew, prison,
of expulsion, land-seizure, anathemas, iron fists, a steel heart
set on driving out the Amorites and destroying Amalek’s spawn.
Let the blood soak in the dust: it is blood, not Word.
Terrible—the Kingdom conceived by blunted hearts.
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