November 14, 2015
he news from Paris is horrific and brutal: a combination of Moscow 2002, Mumbai 2008, and Nairobi 2013—at the least. We do not yet know the full toll nor the precise perpetrator, but the outlines seem reasonably discernible: men with Kalashnikovs and suicide belts screaming “Allahu Akbar” are saving us the trouble of wondering about their principal cause and motivation. It is murder of a shockingly common sort, remarkable these days only in its scale and location. We seem reasonably able to carry on as before when men of this same general class and clique storm a Kenyan university campus and slaughter nearly 150 people—it was in Garissa just seven months ago, remember? No?—but we are less sanguine when the same toll is exacted in the City of Lights.
There are a few things to understand in the days to come.
First, there is a particular self-congratulatory piety that has achieved rapid dissemination on social media this evening, averring that there is no need to be fearful or wary of refugee populations by reason of the Paris massacre, as the refugees are fleeing the same sort of murderous people. Let’s get this straight: anyone disseminating that trope is at best not thinking things through. There are in fact many refugees fleeing from these kinds of killers, and they deserve our help and sympathy. But they are almost certainly not the preponderance of the migrants who have come into Europe in the past months. That cohort is, according to United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights data, supermajority young and male, which is what economic migration looks like—not a refugee flow, which will typically have a population-representative distribution of ages and sexes. Now, economic migrants also deserve the full measure of humane treatment—and we furthermore have no confirmation this evening that any migrant population of any kind was involved in this attack. Yet let us be aware of two more things: that there are plenty of examples of extremist sympathies within that cohort; and that this is France, and there is a history, and we may be allowed reasonable assumptions—as may the people and the authorities responsible for their security.
Second, with regard to those migrant cohorts, France—assuming (as is reasonable) that residents of France, and possibly French citizens, were involved in this massacre—must make the choice it has been avoiding for the past half-century, ever since De Gaulle made the colossal errors of abandoning l'Algérie française and importing millions of Arabs as a laboring class without allowing them real civic integration. (Either alone would have been fine, as would neither together, but both together have been a slow-motion disaster.) French laïcité was never up to that task—organic secularism is one thing, but imposed secularism looks a great deal like social tyranny, as Americans are coming to learn firsthand—and now the model is more fiction than real. France and Europe are going to have to choose: it will either definitively and openly be a blood-and-soil continent of permanent insiders and permanent outsiders who must periodically revolt to secure their place in the social order—a story as old as the Gothic War of the late fourth century AD—or it must adapt a more American model of assimilation and incorporation. That American model is hardly flawless, but it need not be perfect: it must simply be better than what Europe has managed, and it manifestly is.
Third, let’s be honest: it is orders of magnitude more likely that France and Europe will in aggregate choose the blood-and-soil route. This will be cheered by marginal figures on the American right and the power structure in Moscow, and there is a meaningful possibility that it will be awful in ways we do not expect. Imagine President Marine Le Pen of the République française (and it is easy to imagine her this evening), and imagine her approach to—for example—Russian claims in Ukraine, or the sale of Mistrals to Moscow, or myriad other issues large and small. To be clear, we cannot predict disaster: it is not necessarily so that the European right would be hugely worse than the sclerotic and failed European center and left that has run the show more or less uninterrupted since May 1945. But it is in the best scenario variability in a system that cannot afford much more of it, and in the worst scenario it is ugly in ways that we fortunately do not have to contemplate yet.
Fourth, whoever rules France now or later, the perpetrators of this evening’s massacre, at home and abroad, may expect rough and relentless justice in their futures. France has acted so often where we have not: making Reagan look weak by comparison in 1980s Lebanon, stepping up in Mali when no one else would in 2013, et cetera. France is infrequently led by wise men, but it is—at least in the Fifth Republic—usually led by tough men.
Finally, a moment of clarity: we began with a popular piety here, and we will end with one. There is a lot of talk about how this Paris massacre will change things, by which different people mean different things, but mostly mean we will finally get tough, do what’s necessary, etc., etc., on terrorism and terrorists. (Set aside here what people mean by that.) This is likely untrue, and we should disabuse ourselves of the notion. This is not our first time, here in the West, down the grim and bloody road of urban mass terror. Paris has prior to tonight seen magazine editors massacred; Toulouse and Montanan have seen French Jews hunted and killed in the open; Madrid has seen its commuter trains bombed; so has London, and its buses too; and I brushed the flecks of ash from my wife’s hair after she escaped the terrible slaughter in New York City on 11 September 2001. This killing today, it is properly shocking, but it introduces no new questions into policy. Those questions have been posed and answered time and again over many years now, and those answers have been affirmed and reaffirmed by democratic electorates. We will alter operational and tactical approaches—but the broad strategy of the West is set, and barring a fundamental reordering of our societies and politics (see the second and third points above) it will remain. That isn’t changing. Maybe this assessment is wrong, and maybe this is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. But let’s not expect it. The probability, whether one finds it heartening or depressing, is that the list of real changes in reaction to the Parisian massacre of 13 November 2015 is as follows: