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Paris: assembling the fragments

Jean Jullien: symbol 'Peace for Paris'

“The bomber will always
get through.” In the deep valley of the 1930s, a phrase used by the British
conservative politician Stanley Baldwin came to stand for the sense of
foreboding with which beleaguered European democracy envisaged the prospect of
another war. Today, after the latest massacre of innocents in Paris by a jihadi
cell, it is hard for many citizens of France and its neighbours to escape the
same mix of pessimism and fatalism.

So unequal were the odds
on that convivial Friday evening, so “easy” the targets in the restaurants and
clubs where young Parisians were gathering, and so infinite the opportunities
presented by open societies to those intent on killing without discrimination
or restraint: no wonder that the outpouring of grief and solidarity following
the events of 13 November has been shadowed by a “fear of the future” of the
kind expressed by Baldwin in 1932. By shell-shocked Saturday, when the
unleavened horror of the night before was becoming plain, the bleakest thought
of all (to adapt Albert Camus) was that those in the grip of a nihilistic
ideology will always “get through” to kill and die in a happy city.

In this respect the
response in France is already a contrast with that following the murders in January of seventeen
people at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and at a Jewish kosher
supermarket, when hundreds of thousands marched behind an array of
world leaders under the rubric “Nous sommes tous Charlie” (“We are all
Charlie”). It’s not just that France’s state of emergency prevents any such
major show of unity in the historic Place de la République, though a few
hundred did gather there for a candlelit vigil on Saturday night, and another
gathering took place on Sunday. This time, the mood is more inward. The
difference owes something to the amorphous nature of the assaults, the
normality of their setting, their vaster scale, and the intimate, “they-are-us”
character of the 132 killed and 350 wounded. (The former total rose by three on
15 November as emergency hospital treatment wasn’t enough to save them.)

The events unfolded in a confusing sequence that took hours for authorities and reporters to piece together. Soon
after 9 pm local time, five black-clad operatives made near simultaneous raids
in Paris’s bustling 10th and 11th arrondissements. Shootings at a bar,
Cambodian restaurant, pizzeria and street near the Place de la Republique
killed thirty-nine people in all, while an incursion into the Bataclan concert
hall in Boulevard Voltaire (where an alternative rock music band was performing)
left ninety dead. Near simultaneously, three companions exploded their suicide
vests outside the Stade de France in the city’s north, where France and Germany
were playing a friendly soccer match. (They may have aimed to enter the stadium
and inflict much greater carnage; at least one had a ticket but was stopped
from entering by guards employed by Perth-based MCS Security.)

France’s president,
François Hollande, had been hurriedly evacuated from the stadium as the
explosions sounded. Within two hours he was announcing the emergency, including
a closure of national borders, on television. Three days of official mourning
have followed. Across the city and Europe entire, front pages were frantically
rewritten and news channels went into rolling coverage of still inchoate
fragments. Soon, expressions of sympathy from world leaders were pouring in,
along with now customary symbolic gestures: Sydney’s Opera House and London’s
Tower Bridge lit in the French tricolour, Barack Obama’s reference to “our oldest
ally,” spontaneous vigils and renderings of “La Marseillaise” outside
diplomatic missions. France’s universalism, as well as being integral to
national identity, still carries global appeal.

Yet this time, the
aftermath will inevitably demand much more: more thought, leadership,
international cooperation and cohesive purpose. In retrospect, the January
massacre, and the thwarted attack on an Amsterdam-to-Paris train in August,
became too symbolic too quickly. “Black Friday” may prove the real catharsis for
France and perhaps beyond, by clarifying the historic scale of the Islamic
State, or ISIS, challenge. What, however, might more vigorous “securitisation”
do to the very liberty ingrained in the Parisian, and French, soul? Here, many
cite Britain’s ubiquitous CCTV as the regrettable price, or a too high one, for
notionally greater security. It is not only that there are no easy answers; in
diverse Europe there may be no uniform ones either.

In any event, the authorities’ immediate priority is to map the exact
details of what happened and its background, in order to assess and counter
live risks. Most urgent is to track the links between what the security
agencies call the “point of origin” and the “point of connection”: in this case
perhaps Raqqa, the ISIS “capital,” and Paris. Evidence that the perpetrators
include three French brothers – now respectively dead, detained and on the run
– give the investigation momentum, as do the arrests of suspected associates
near Brussels. Other reports, of a Syrian and an Egyptian passport belonging to attackers,
and of connections (including arms transfers) with the refugee inflow through
Greece and the Balkans, have yet to cohere.

The testimony of survivors, often
underestimated, is also invaluable at this stage. Amid their trauma, several
confirm the unmasked assailants’ clinical approach, youthful appearance, and
calm reloading of weaponry. One referred to a “ghostly” enemy who seemed to
appear from nowhere to casually mow down people sitting outside at a restaurant
table. The prominent French writer Pascal Bruckner echoes the observation: “We
are living in a state of war – a special war with invisible enemies striking at
us whenever they want.”

The location, timing and
horror of the atrocity ensure its worldwide impact. In turn that gives a
crucial insight into the minds of those who planned it. In perspective, Paris
represents an epicentre of Islamist terror since the mid 1990s (when a wave of
bombings struck the city, killing eight people on its rail network). The
bloodbath of relaxed youngsters on a night out recalls Bali’s nightclub bombing
in October 2002, where ninety-one Australians were among the 202 dead (as does
ISIS’s rhetoric in claiming
responsibility – Paris as the “capital of prostitution and vice, carrier of the
Banner of the Cross of Europe”). Turning victims into hostages, as for several
terrible hours at Bataclan before police stormed the venue, has a trace of the
Chechen sieges in Moscow and Beslan in the early 2000s.

The intended targeting
of the Stade de France echoes the “spectacle” of 9/11 itself. A major strike on
a European capital links to the bombings of Madrid’s and London’s transport
hubs in 2004–05. Above all, the mobile, marauding assaults that turned the
freedom of the city against itself – as an opportunity for large-scale murder –
closely resemble the Mumbai operation of November 2008 (directed from
Pakistan), where a ten-man cell killed 166 people.

Along with the explosion
on a Russian passenger jet over Sinai, and other recent massacres in Tunis,
Ankara, Baghdad, and Beirut (to name only those), ISIS has developed the
capacity to apply al Qaeda’s hybrid killing strategy in a more professionally
militarised way. The French scholar Jean-Pierre Filiu, author of From Deep State to
Islamic State
, calls the movement “a successful al
Qaeda able to coordinate major terrorist attacks worldwide.”

It is the Mumbai precedent that most worries British emergency planners,
who rehearsed just such a scenario in June. Raffaello Pantucci, author of We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban
Terrorists
, says that the “form of horror” displayed in Paris
“requires deep indoctrination, preparation and training… Mumbai-style terrorism
has reached European shores.”

Many would-be assaults
in Britain have already been aborted at the planning stage by good
intelligence, or even a later one by luck and heroism. In June 2007, a
Bali-type attempt on a nightclub in London’s Leicester Square, followed the
next day by a ram-raid bombing of Glasgow airport, both narrowly failed.
Everyone in Britain’s “deep state” is inculcated in the chilling reminder from
the Irish Republican Army, or IRA, after it killed five people, but just missed
Margaret Thatcher, in Brighton in 1984: “We only have to be lucky once.”

Much concern focuses on
the approximately 750 young British Muslims who have gone to Syria to join
ISIS, of whom around 450 have since returned. Both returnees and stay-at-home
sympathisers are subject to what Charles Farr, head of the Office for
Security and Counter-Terrorism, calls “ideological grooming” by ISIS’s
cyber-caliphate propagandists. Monitoring and deradicalisation programs race to
stay ahead. A timely New Statesman analysis by Shiraz Maher of
London’s International Centre for
the Study of Radicalisation – published on the day of the Paris
attacks – notes that the ISIS threat “is diversifying, deepening and becoming
ever more sophisticated.”

The Independent’s
Patrick Cockburn developed the point in the wake
of the massacre. ISIS “is an effective fighting machine because its military
skills… are a potent blend of urban terrorism, guerrilla tactics and
conventional warfare.” Its ends, moreover, are clear: to entice Western states
further into direct combat via “boots on the ground,” and to foment sectarian
hatreds in the West that reinforce alienation among local Muslims and thus make
them more receptive to the jihadi message.

One lesson of Paris is
the need for world leaders – now meeting in the G20 summit in Antalya, Turkey – to
have a coherent strategy whose various elements (political, military,
intelligence, hard and soft power alike) emerge from a definite analysis and
are tied to a desired result. Stopping criminal violence and its triggers is
the vital, day-to-day priority, a whack-a-mole task but not in itself a
strategy. The latter has to be linked to democratic renewal, social harmony and
economic progress in ways that link Europe, the Middle East and other regions.
Above all, the strategy needs what is sorely lacking today: confidence in the
West’s own best principles.

There is little sign of this emerging. And Europe’s margin of freedom, as
Nick Cohen wisely counsels in the Observer,
may be shrinking. (After Paris, he writes, “it feels as if our luck has run
out.”) But a small consolation is that an economically straitened Europe, now very
pressed too by a huge refugee and migrant inflow, for the moment resists
the intercommunal strife longed for by jihadi and other extremists. Paris’s
response to the trauma of “13/11,” necessarily less demonstrative than after
the Charlie Hebdo atrocity, is so far equally noble.

The Sunday Times journalist Patrick Bishop, now resident in the
city’s northwest, talks to Ammar, the
manager of a shoe shop, who says, “Everyone knew this was coming… It takes a
certain type of person to set out to kill people when they are having a good
time – eating, drinking, watching a band. It shows how much they hate life and
want to destroy it.” But is there a chance they will succeed? “Never! I am
an Algerian and a Frenchman and a Muslim and proud to be all three. I live here
in friendship with my neighbours, Jew, Catholic, whatever. What has happened is
dreadful, but we Parisians will sort ourselves out and get on with life and its
pleasures. We’ve got to. Otherwise the terrorists have won.”

It’s a fragment among
millions. And there is so much the other way. But each fragment, like each
destroyed and wounded life, matters. Paris’s sadness is a measure of the
beautiful humanity the world has lost. Those lives of hope and promise
must somehow hold the key to a future beyond fear.

This article was published for the first time in InsideStory.

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