We blew it after 9/11. We're blowing it again after Paris

We had global goodwill after 9/11 and squandered it in Iraq. Rage and vengeance is wrong strategy post-Paris, too

Published November 21, 2015 1:00PM (EST)

  (AP/Doug Mills/Carolyn Kaster/Photo montage by Salon)
(AP/Doug Mills/Carolyn Kaster/Photo montage by Salon)

On Sept. 14, 2001, 800 million Europeans in 43 countries observed three minutes of silence for the victims of 9/11. From Europe and around the world came pleas that the U.S. not squander this global goodwill. I recall the words of my brother John, a French-American Medieval scholar and co-author of "Europe and Islam: Fifteen Centuries of History," who wrote then from France: “This massive unity of public opinion and political will provides the United States with a tremendous opportunity and risk: the chance to capitalize on this good will and the danger of taking action that will splinter the forces that stand with us now.”

Of course, we blew it, instead pursuing a foolhardy war under false pretense and prompting a 14-year ongoing nightmare: half a million Iraqi civilians dead, by one estimate, a deep and abiding rage against America and its occupation, and a mighty vacuum in the wake of Saddam Hussein that prompted the rise of ISIS and the biggest global refugee crisis since World War II.

Now, the fury has exploded, again: 129 people dead in Paris at the hands of a twisted ideology forged in a cauldron of rage, disenfranchisement, perverse religious interpretation and cool military calculation. And again, the West is faced with a choice: lash out in vengeance, stigmatize certain immigrants, and seal off the borders, or devise a more measured response in keeping with values that for centuries have led refugees to Western shores.

Clearly ISIS prefers a Western response grounded in vengeance and xenophobia. In early 2015, an article in Dabiq, the ISIS magazine, described an apocalyptic war between good and evil. The article celebrated the Charlie Hebdo massacre and “the blessed operations of September 11th,” endorsing a “call to Muslims everywhere … to carry out attacks against the crusaders wherever they may be found, with money and weapons so as to call to jihād … to further bring division to the world …”   This emerging world is “divided into two camps,” the article proclaimed, quoting Osama bin Laden’s ironic endorsement of the words of George W. Bush: “Bush spoke the truth when he said, ‘Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.’ Meaning, either you are with the crusade or you are with Islam.”

“The greater the hostility toward Muslims in Europe and the deeper the West becomes involved in military action in the Middle East, the closer ISIS comes to its goal of creating and managing chaos,” write Scott Atran and Nafees Hamid in “The War ISIS wants,” an article in the New York Review of Books. Indeed the ISIS vision is already playing out across devastated landscapes in Iraq and Syria, in flotillas of rubber dinghies in the Mediterranean, and in the streams of refugees moving north into the heart of Europe. Now, as anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment builds, hard-right nativists in Europe and America are operating precisely as ISIS hoped they would.

The Dabiq article foresaw increasing repression against Muslims in the West, which could eventually lead to a Muslim repatriation “to the Islamic State…thereby escap[ing] persecution of the crusader government and citizens.” What ISIS calls the “grayzone” – the Western landscape where Muslims can seek safety and live peaceably with their secular neighbors – is “on the brink of extinction.” Thus do the Islamic State and the empowered global right – from France’s National Front to Austria’s Freedom Party to the Republican Congress and presidential candidates in the U.S. – forge common cause. President Obama mocked Republicans this week, saying they were afraid of “widows and orphans,” and adding, “We are not well served when, in response to a terrorist attack, we descend into fear and panic.” The remarks prompted Donald Trump to label Obama a threat to the nation, and Ted Cruz to challenge the president to “insult me to my face.” The next day, by a landslide  the House voted to drastically tighten screening for Syrian refugees, even though it already takes 18 to 24 months to process them -- hardly a procedure terrorists would submit to.

“American politicians just don't have a basic understanding of the threat that we face," Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Center for Middle East Policy, told Al Monitor. ISIS, he said, “wants to provoke a clash of civilizations. That's the intent. So when we use similar language, we're falling into their trap.”

In recent days, amid François Hollande’s pledge of a “merciless war” and GOP-led efforts to ban Syrian refugees (unless they are Christian), a small chorus of dissenting voices has urged calm. “An event like this cannot shake the foundations of society unless we let it,” Harvard professor of international relations Stephen Walt argues in Foreign Policy.  “If the Islamic State can get France and other countries to crack down on their Muslim citizens and also get the West to reoccupy large swaths of the Middle East, then its false narrative about the West’s deep and intrinsic antipathy to Islam will gain more credence, as will its carefully cultivated image as the staunchest defender of Islam today.”

Walt, while taking pains to underscore that he is “most certainly not defending, excusing, or rationalizing” terrorism, nevertheless declares: “At the same time, to pretend that American and European actions have nothing whatsoever to do with this problem is to bury one’s head in the sand and ignore the obvious.” He adds:

Decades of misguided U.S. and European policies have left many people in the Arab and Islamic world deeply angry at and resentful toward the West. Those policies include the West’s cozy coddling of various Arab dictators, its blind support for Israel’s brutal policies toward the Palestinians, and its own willingness to wage air campaigns, employ sanctions, or invade Middle Eastern countries whenever it thinks doing so suits its short-term interest.

In the days after 9/11 in America, when fear gripped the nation and mainstream news anchors began to wear American flag lapel pins during their broadcasts, such sentiments – from Susan Sontag in the New Yorker and Bill Maher on "Politically Incorrect" – were viciously attacked. In France in 2015, according to close observers, there is a similar resistance to look within. Most if not all of the Paris attackers, after all, were not refugees fleeing Syria, but the European-born sons and grandsons of Arab and North African migrants to France and Belgium.(Which makes suspending the entry of Syrian refugees to the U.S. all the more senseless.) In France, their homes are in the banlieues, the marginalized, neglected suburbs (sometimes called “zones of banishment”) at the edge of Paris, and other like communities.

Just after the attacks, a friend of mine, an American-born businessman based for  two decades between Asia and France who worked and was educated in Paris (and who requested anonymity because of his business dealings), wrote a letter to a Paris-based friend. The attackers, my friend wrote,

are not Charlie. Dejected, rejected and certainly unassimilated to liberté, égalité & fraternité. They feel none of it, scoff at it, at that which was not brought home to them. As horrific and unjustified as was what occurred, there is objectively a systemic problem with too much of the French populace and its current government…not acknowledging fully the issues of the Islamic populace at home. One can't have allowed the migration initially, and then not truly allocate time, thought and resources to their well being, bringing them into la famille and by as effective of means as one may muster with serious, concerted and enduring efforts. Too easy otherwise to engender isolation, misunderstanding and ultimately hatred, lashing out in the most base means available, aligning with any cause that may give them voice and vengeance-though it comes at the cost even of their own lives. What circular nihilism, what mitigable tragedy. (See the full letter here.)

Alejandro Portes, professor emeritus of sociology at Princeton and author of "Immigrant America" and many other books (full disclosure: He is also my father-in-law), believes the Paris attacks “were entirely anticipated by the explosions in the Parisian banlieus in 2005.” Most of the terrorists, Portes points out,

are second generation citizens of the country. They reflect a spectacular failure of immigrant assimilation in France and, to a lesser extent, in other European countries. The process is understandable as downward assimilation in the second generation, except that, in the U.S. disaffected Mexican and Haitian kids join gangs while, in France, they join a mosque and have their miserable hopeless lives re-interpreted for them by radical imams. Whether they expect the six virgins after martyrdom is a moot point. The key point is that radical Islam and ISIS give meaning to their lives and the inner hate they harbor for a society that marginalizes. Surely, those young men who shot and re-loaded did not feel much compulsion about killing white French people.

Like Stephen Walt, Portes is not justifying or condoning the attacks, rather seeking to help explain them. Soon after the 2005 explosions in the banlieues, Portes began initial research for a study on their social conditions. But he was discouraged, he says, “by the French official position that denied the existence of ethnic groups in the country." The French enshrine laïcité, or secular culture, as “an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic,” according to its constitution, thus discouraging recognition of differences between social groups. “This denial,” Portes wrote me, “effectively blinded the state to what was taking place right under its nose.”

Yet immigrants to France feel resentful not only for their social marginalization, but for what they perceive as laïcité’s inconsistent French secular values. You can’t make anti-Semitic statements, for example, but it’s fine to caricaturize the Muslim Prophet in crude and degrading cartoons. The government may join a coalition to bomb Middle Eastern targets, it will support “Israel’s right to defend itself,” but you could go to jail for joining a pro-Palestinian demonstration. You can check in “safe” on Facebook after the attacks in central Paris, far from where you live, but your cousin in Beirut, after the attacks there 24 hours earlier, had no such option.

* * *

The choice France and the West now face bears striking parallels to the one American leaders and citizens confronted in Sept. 12, 2001. Fourteen years and two months later, a single front page in the New York Times reflects a darkness we could not have anticipated then: “Call to Arms in France Amid Raids and a Manhunt…Distrust, Even Fear, As Secular France Cools on Muslims…G.O.P. Governors Vow to Close Doors To Syrian Refugees…Gloves Off, Director Of the C.I.A. Faults Surveillance Curbs…”  The headlines, the explosions, the rivers of refugees, the armed immigrant camps, the haves locked safely (perhaps) behind towering walls bristling with razor wire: all seem to presage the West’s dystopian future straight out of the film "Children of Men." Yet there is still a chance to get it right.

The answer lies not in succumbing to fear, and thereby to ISIS’s own wishes, but in reinforcing the values that make our societies worth living in. My brother John, the French-American Medieval scholar, was dining in Paris with his wife, Michelle, on Friday night. By chance, they chose not to eat in one of the neighborhoods where the attacks took place. “So random,” he reflected softly by phone this week. As John and Michelle walked home in the 13th Arrondisement, they saw the stream of ambulances and police cars screaming in the other direction. Later, from their seventh-floor walkup, they looked down at the television crews assembling at the big hospital across the street.

But John does not want to build new walls in France, or see its open, democratic culture replaced by a permanent state of emergency. “The worst thing we could do is to turn our backs on the cosmopolitan, open culture that the terrorists are attacking,” my brother says. The vision purity that ISIS and its ilk long for – or for that matter, the national purity in France and beyond, sought by the European right – never really existed in history, John says. What needs to be embraced now, he says, is “that part of French culture that is welcoming and tolerant. I as an immigrant am part of that culture. We should be proud of it.”

Or, as my businessman friend puts it:

As the most recent terror victim and its own worst attack since WWII, all eyes are upon France and it is France's just turn to lead and inspire through the character of its response. Will France do better than our largely flawed and failed actions when it was our turn to lead post millennium? Will she muster the courage to take pause, find her enlightened self as so formidably she has in her proud past and here now raise a torch for us all? Or will we again revert to isolation and vengeance, squander the opportunity, the sympathy of all the world, Islamic and otherwise in this hour as we had fourteen years ago and abused. Will we debase to what desolation, despair and death is Daesh in its myriad limitless forms? What have we learned? Is there not a better way forward to break this tragic, unending cycle of hatred and hell? If France- one of the world's modern pioneers of egalitarianism and humanitarianism, indeed often the world's social conscience now will not, I wonder who will?

“Without this,” says my friend, “God save us.”

By Sandy Tolan

Sandy Tolan is author of the international bestseller "The Lemon Tree" and "Children of the Stone: The Power of Music in a Hard Land." He has reported from more than 35 countries, and extensively from Native American country. He is associate professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at USC. Visit his website or follow him on Twitter: @sandy_tolan

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