On Nov. 13, 2015, the deadliest attack on French soil since World War II was committed by agents and accomplices of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). 132 innocent people died in a series of calculated terrorist actions across Paris, including a suicide bombing at the Stade de France, mass street-level shootings and a hostage situation at the Bataclan theatre where an Eagles of Death Metal concert was being held.
352 individuals were injured, with three dying in the hospital shortly after the attacks took place. The international community came together to express condolences and solidarity with France as the nation observed a period of intense mourning. Heads of state across the world offered words of unity and support. Soon after the shootings, President François Hollande authorized a heavy bombardment of the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa in Syria, the largest airstrike since the onset of Operation Chammal in late 2014. Hollande declared that the attacks were an act of war and that the perpetrators were to be treated accordingly. The use of the word “war” establishes and reinforces long-standing issues with how the West reacts to terrorist attacks.
Conservative commentators in the United States expressed frustration with a perceived softness of President Obama’s treatment of ISIS and viewed the attacks as an administrative failure to contain the group. Rep. Peter King of New York argued, “We have to show more of an intensity.” Senator John McCain criticized the French bombing of Raqqa, saying “Frankly, I’m not overwhelmed with 20 airstrikes by the French.”(Fox News, “Obama: Paris terror rampage a ‘setback’,” 11.16.2015). Such responses underscore a deeply flawed approach to analyzing the Paris attacks. The call for immediate and aggressive military action appears to ignore the foreign relations catastrophe of the Iraq War, a conflict that created the unstable climate in which ISIS was allowed to claim power. It is this exact historical reaction that led to further unrest and violence in the region, thus presenting an even greater threat to the West and the innocent civilians residing in nations plagued by terrorism.
Republican presidential candidates were quick to comment on the attacks. Senator Lindsey Graham criticized the French reaction to the attack and Obama’s handling of the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, saying, “If we just drop a few bombs on these guys and that’s it, they’ll be stronger than ever.” (Fox News). Others described the attack as “an organized attempt to destroy Western civilization” (The Hill, “Bush on Paris attacks: ‘This is the war of our time’,” 11.13.2015) and categorize the actions of ISIS as “not be[ing] deterred by targeted airstrikes with zero tolerance for civilian casualties” (Official statement of presidential candidate Ted Cruz).
Ted Cruz’s insinuation that disregarding civilian casualties will somehow amount to more effective military policy in the United States particularly highlights how far and insidious political rhetoric can become in the wake of a horrific tragedy. This problematic line of thinking reflects the exact fear-mongering and horror-stricken reactions terrorists seek in order to inspire panic and knee-jerk, undeveloped action.
As distinguished economist and writer Paul Krugman stated in his article “Fearing Fear Itself,” former Governor Jeb Bush’s logic fails to take into account the very nature of terrorism itself. Krugman notes that terrorism’s exact purpose is to goad the public into “panic mode” and supporting ill-advised policy that either appeases forces of extreme violence or aggressive attempts to suppress any and all threats (e.g. the mindset preceding the Iraq War), which only serves to strengthen or validate the terrorist force. Additionally, it is important to note that the West’s reactions to such atrocities will remain unchanged; “policing, precaution, and military action” will remain cornerstones (The New York Times, “Fearing Fear Itself,” 11.16.2015). The incessant calls for more action and aggression on the right do nothing to meaningfully alter the problems inherent in American foreign policy. Instead, it fosters panic and unrest among the populace To that end, hyper-heightened focus on the tragedy and senselessness of the act, though inevitable, only serves the purpose of weakening the resolve of societies and therefore giving ISIS exactly what it wants. Such terrorist attacks are rooted in a desire to spread instability and discord, which only breeds further disorder. It is easy to let the sheer evil and disgustingness of an act color political reactions to it. This sentiment is in no way advocating for the downplaying or diminishing of the tragedy and its victims.
Mourning is an integral component of the international healing process. Additionally, such arguments should not be interpreted as advocating for “doing nothing” about terrorism and its aftershocks. The Paris attacks catalyze a number of contentious and painful issues, such as the increased adversity refugees will face, people who already traverse extreme examples of prejudice across Europe. The hurdle of bigotry will be larger than ever and must be dealt with. However, the crippling fear and anxiety that come with tragedy must not allow societies to react callously and unreasonably.
Moreover, such notions should serve to shift focus from the “direct harm inflicted” of the attacks to the “wrong-headed response it can inspire” and the issues that arise when such responses become politically internalized. As Krugman so eloquently argues, “The goal of terrorists is to inspire terror, because that’s all they’re capable of. And the most important thing our societies can do in response is to refuse to give in to fear.”
—Nick Barone ’19 is a student at Vassar College.