The terrorist nightmare that ran rampage through Paris on November 13 is another example of the vulnerability of our world—a world we too often take for granted and about which we argue so vehemently, so openly, and so freely with each other. That world is under attack by those who want another world, one that repudiates tolerance and diversity while waiting for the apocalypse. Thousands have died in the resulting terrorist turmoil in the last year alone. Millions have died in similar paths.
We have witnessed this kind of terror before—indeed over centuries. Yet the twenty-first century has been bathed in blood as never before as a result of terror of all kinds happening all over the world.
The purpose of the terrorist attacks in Paris was to promote fear and revenge, both of which are dangerous paths. But it was also a catalyst for renewed emphasis on European unity on an existential issue.
Commentators have drawn comparisons between 13 November 2015 and 11 September 2001. There have been other earlier comparisons: the bombings in London, the train attacks in Madrid, and the hotel massacres in Mumbai. One can count many more cases of such acts of terror. Indeed, the reign of terror in Syria and its surrounding regions has raged on constantly for several years, with a high human price. There have been victories over the terrorists—military triumphs, elimination of enemies—but there have also been missteps and mistakes. Our means have sometimes overtaken our ends. In our efforts to identify the sources of danger, we sometimes portray the opponent in either simplistic terms or generalized accusations. The eternal debate between the need for security and freedom can always be exploited by political opportunism.
And yet, the massacre in Paris and the threat of more terror to come is now looming over all of Europe; Germany in particular is feeling the reverberations. A soccer game between Germany and Holland scheduled in Hannover was canceled due to a (later unverifiable) bomb threat. Angela Merkel and others in her cabinet were to attend the game as a sign of solidarity against the terrorists in Paris, but the police determined it was too dangerous. While police investigations elsewhere in Germany are being carried out in the wake of these threats, the French police have killed and arrested more terror suspects in Paris.
The fact that the high profile attacks in Paris occurred without being detected in advance has both the German government and the public in a nervous mood. Police equipped with machine guns patrol public spaces. If one is old enough, one can hear and see echoes of forty years ago, when other home-grown terrorists (the Baader-Meinhof gang) were carrying out attacks and murders in Germany, catapulting the country into a similar mood.
To some, the cancellation of the Hannover soccer game might seem to be a capitulation—a failure to show symbolic courage against terrorism. Meanwhile, that same demonstration of solidarity did take place in London on the same night in a game between England and France, despite the risks after the Paris attacks.
The weeks ahead will witness how France, Germany, and the rest of Europe respond to this escalation of terror. The fact that France has now asked its fellow EU members for assistance in responding to these attacks—a request never before made within the European Union—is a new chapter in the history of the European community. That the opportunity to invoke NATO’s Article 5 was not taken had much to do with the need to sustain other sources of help outside of the NATO alliance, particularly in the region in and around Syria. France has now issued a call for EU solidarity, which will involve military dimensions. Germany needs to respond accordingly; the initial reaction has been hesitant.
In Germany, the continuing influx of both migrants and refugees will be part of the debate of how to deal with the uncertainty in the air. The discovery of a Syrian passport at the terrorists’ Parisian apartment will inevitably generate more uncertainty—and with that, more pressure on Chancellor Merkel to confront the refugee challenge with more concrete measures in Germany.
Germans should remember that terrorists have already attempted attacks in their country, and it is likely that more attempts will be made. It is important to anticipate that terror will not only come from radical Islam jihadists. It can come from other sources in other extremist circles. Attacks on refugee centers throughout Germany are only one example.
How political leaders and the media shape the discussion in the coming weeks and months is therefore that much more critical. Conflating the terrorists with the refugees is a tempting target for political opportunists, as has been demonstrated on both sides of the Atlantic in the past few days. The same inclination emerges in the discussion of Islam as the source of terrorism, but both outlooks only add to the tensions within our societies. The fact that either a group or a state utilizes Islam to justify murder, mayhem, and barbarity is not a rationale for blaming a religion of nearly 2 billion people.
Yet that is exactly what right-wing groups and their leaders are going to do in the wake of Paris. And that will deliver more evidence to the jihadists that the West is fighting a war against Islam.
Europe has been fragmented by the refugee crisis already. If the response to the terror attacks in Paris enlarges those cracks, the EU will face an even more dangerous future. Germany under its current leadership has been seen as the one country that has been holding up the banner of Europe in confronting its challenges. That effort now needs to be utilized in the response to this wave of current and future terror.
The ability to generate a “coalition of the willing” in an atmosphere of anxiety will be difficult in the domestic arena as well as at the European level. The reactions across Europe are not in sync. France has been hit hard and needs to respond. Other countries have also been hit by terror but are reacting hesitantly to French calls for more than pronouncements of sympathy.
Twelve years ago, the United States decided to take action against Saddam Hussein, who was thought to be the prime source of dangerous terrorism in the Middle East. France and Germany declined to support that strategy, which led to a major rift with Washington and its remaining allies in Europe. That clash remains a source of transatlantic friction even today in the debate over how the current crisis has emerged.
But after the dark day of November 13, France today is responding to what it sees as the source of terrorism in the form of ISIS and is looking for allies on all sides to engage in eliminating the spreading cancer.
This time there is no doubt about the danger. ISIS is the source of immediate threats and capabilities. Consensus that ISIS must be destroyed runs from Europe and across the Atlantic, to Russia and its bombed airliner and the many neighbors of Iraq and Syria who fear the spread of violence into their own countries. Given that consensus, it remains a challenge to mobilize the combined resources to act together. But will it take still another tragedy in Paris, Beirut, or Berlin to finally move ahead?