Once upon a time—well, twenty-five years ago or so—there were a few hundred people who thought they were in a state of war with the United States of America. They labored under this delusion largely unnoticed by the populace of the country, although they were kept under surveillance by the superpower’s intelligence community, somewhat grudgingly. Very few Americans had ever heard of their enemy in this supposed war, though, and frankly not many more could have pointed on a map to the country in which they based their operations. Well, “operations”. They managed, over a period of years, to carry out a few terrorist attacks, murder a few dozen Americans and inconvenience a few hundred more. They had a ready source of money and a few powerful people who, without evidently taking the bastards seriously, were willing to give some support to this delusion. It wasn’t a war. The idea would have been absurd.
Then, on the eleventh of September 2001, this handful of people managed to hijack four airplanes, and managed, mostly through blind luck, to kill not a few hundred people but a few thousand. Still, of course, this was one ten-thousandth of a percent of the population; they were scarcely a threat to the average American. The murders were real, and terrible, and they sparked a terrible revenge, as well they might. The destruction of the deluded but murderous conspiracy was drawn out over more than a decade, but its ability to commit large-scale destruction was wiped out almost immediately.
I’m skipping a lot in this story, of course. On purpose. I’m ignoring our national madness, the other countries we invaded, the… well, I’m ignoring a lot of stuff. Giving a completely wrong impression of the history. Still and all: there were a handful of madmen (mostly men) who laboured under the delusion that they were at war with the United States of America, successfully conspired to mass murder, and were wiped out without ever having posed any sort of threat to the vast majority of Americans in their daily lives.
Now, here’s the thing. Daesh, or whatever you want to call them, is slaughtering people in the thousands upon thousands, causing millions—millions— to flee from their homes to face danger and poverty in faraway lands rather than stay in their homes under Daesh rule. They are a real, terrifying danger in the world. You could argue for a couple of other forces (Putin’s Russia is terrifying; China has the power to be terrifying at any moment, even if it is comparitively quiescent of late, central Africa is… I have no idea what the hell is going on in central Africa these days) but Daesh is one of the most powerful forces for destruction, death and horror in the world today.
And they, also, think of themselves as being at war with the United States, as well as with the European Union. And in the heart of Europe, in Paris, a city of two and a quarter million people, they managed to slaughter a total of perhaps a hundred and fifty people. Terrible, horrible slaughter, but of, again, they killed half of a hundredth of a percent of the population of the capital city; one out of every half-million or so in the country.
I don’t mean to criticize anyone who is heartbroken over this terrible slaughter; I have been crying about it myself. In fact, that’s what I am getting around to talking about, in a minute. I’m saying that logically, leaving aside the emotion of it all, viewed as a practical and logical analysis, the attacks on the thirteenth of November showed the impotence of Daesh, not their power. If this is their war, they are not winning it; the idea is almost as ludicrous as the idea of Al-Qaeda being at war with the United States. This attack left 99.99% of Parisians physically unharmed, and did no damage whatsoever to their infrastructure, military power, or ability to defend themselves. From this point of view it was, in a word, pathetic.
Having said that…
I am having a very hard time emotionally reconciling myself to this analysis. I am torn up over this one. I am (as best as I can tell) more distraught now than I was after the World Trade Center was destroyed. Well, and I think after the World Trade Center, I was a lot less emotional about it than most people—I had a two-month-old infant to care for, which meant that I didn’t spend much time watching the footage, and besides, my source of joy was so much closer than the source of grief. Plus, I suppose, I had read quite a few articles about terrorism over the previous few years, and was perhaps more aware than most people how much less severe the destruction was than the experts were warning about. And while I have always dreamed of Manhattan (more so, I think, than Paris) the World Trade Center isn’t the part of Manhattan I cared deeply about. Or perhaps I was just young and insensitive.
Or, maybe, it’s that the slaughter in 1991 seemed to have a sort of insane point to it: the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were targets that I could imagine such a group aiming for. Like shooting Archduke Ferdinand. It wouldn’t solve anything, and it was delusional to think it would, and it wouldn’t be remotely justified even if it would solve anything, but… somehow it made a kind of non-rational sense. And, at least, I could identify in my mind similar targets, which could in theory be defended.
The attacks in Paris were just carnage.
They didn’t destroy the Arc de Triomphe, or the Arche de la Fraternité, or even the Flame of Liberty. Or the Louvre. Or the statue of the Defense of Paris. Or the Eiffel Tower. Perhaps they couldn’t figure out how; perhaps those places are well-defended against a half-dozen men with explosive belts. They didn’t shoot up the Comedie Francaise or the Palais Garnier or even the Moulin Rouge. They didn’t target the military, or the politicians, or the financial elite. They slaughtered people who were out at a restaurant or a concert or a ballgame. Just carnage.
I think perhaps that’s what really got to me about it. It’s just carnage. It’s not something we can defend against. Oh, we can do a bunch of stuff, we have been doing a bunch of stuff, but it will always be possible to get some explosives and some firearms in the hands of half-a-dozen zealots who can wreak havoc at a restaurant or a concert or a ballgame. If the government somehow locks down Paris, then they can go to any small town and slaughter a hundred people, if carnage is their goal.
Will carnage be their goal? As we destroy Daesh in Syria (and we will, for values of destroy at the very least including wiping out their ability to control significant amounts of territory) carnage may well become their strategy. Arthur Goldhammer, in The American Prospect, points out that the Algerian playbook, as he put it, eventually meant abandoning strategic or even symbolic targets and just slaughtering people.
I don’t know. I hope this sort of thing doesn’t become a common occurrence in Europe, or in America. Or anywhere, for that matter. And yet, if it does… I feel compelled to point out, if only to myself, that the senseless and vile slaughter of a couple of hundred people is not, viewed analytically, a war. To claim it is a war is to dignify a delusion. To make political and social and legislative decisions as if it were a war is to succumb to delusion ourselves.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,