While in the grip of emotion, is it right to comment at all on the terrorist attacks carried out on Friday night against several hundred people in Paris? Any analysis might appear coldhearted at a time when mourning and compassion are the only appropriate responses. But avoiding commentary means not understanding the nature of terrorism. It paves the way for impulsive reactions and opens the door to further attacks.
I believe that the gratuitousness of the attacks on the night of 13 November is what sets them apart. Unlike the violence perpetrated against Charlie Hebdo in January 2015, these attacks had no symbolic, particular meaning. They were not carried out against the media, nor the Jewish community, nor the government. The targets in this case were ordinary, and it is no doubt for this reason they were chosen. The terrorists wanted to prove they can strike wherever and whenever they see fit, while invading the lives of ordinary people. This banality prevents the authorities from protecting anything that may have tangible value: every French person has become a target, and this new tactic is frightening. But frightening every French person was of course the intention.
It is difficult to interpret this new terrorism based on the usual categories of geopolitics or traditional warfare. We would like to rationalise these events, as any logical explanation would be reassuring. Yet the terrorists’ objectives are as vague as their choice of target. Were these events part of a battle in the war in Syria, as a way of punishing France for attacking the Islamist movement? France plays a relatively small role in Syria, and it is hard to see how a terrorist attack in Paris could dissuade the French air force from bombarding Islamist camps. Quite the opposite, in fact. The cause and effect relationship between Syria and the terrorism in Paris is hardly logical. It is also difficult to relate this terrorist act to the rivalries between Islamist movements led by al-Qaeda and ISIS, both trying to prove to the other its superior ability to recruit militants.
While the causes of the attacks are neither clear nor rational, the murderers themselves are just as confusing. Whether they were born Muslims or converts, if they expected a martyr’s death would lead them to Paradise it is clear they had never read the Koran, and that their only understanding of Islam came from the Internet or ignorant preachers.
Just as Christianity does, Islam promises eternal life to those who are judged to have committed acts of kindness. The Koran does not state that massacring innocents is a fast track to heaven. The Islam of these terrorists is just as muddled as their sense of international relations. Their motives and actions come more under the banner of Nihilism, or nothingness. They are inexplicable, incomprehensible, without reason or purpose. Nihilism is confusing, precisely because it is indefinable. These events do have a precedent in the anarchistic movements that ravaged Europe and the United States in the late 19th century, in which more basic bombs were used than today, but with the same tendency for suicide and similarly vague objectives. Through its very irrationality, Nihilism is uncontrollable. It is not based on politics or warfare, but on a collective, psychosocial pathology which spreads by contagion like an epidemic. This is worrying, as the hotbed of this epidemic in Europe is enormous.
As we know all too well, certain French suburbs have become separate territories filled with idle youths who have turned to dealing drugs and selling weapons. The police hardly dare enter, the schools are deserted and doctors and ambulances refuse to go there. This population is born of immigration, often from many years ago, and these young people are the second- or third-generation descendants of parents and grandparents who came to work in France. These children and grandchildren are French citizens who have transformed these zones into lawless territories.
Governments are the real culprits, guilty of building ghettos, introducing economic policies that only lead to unemployment and refusing to implement any discipline in the streets or the schools. These policies have created huge reservoirs on which the terrorists draw.
The terrorists are the children of these neighbourhoods, and are more than comfortable in their environment. They stock weapons and drugs, and enjoy the support of their peers. The fact their lives in these areas have no meaning is what draws them to this “Islam for dummies” preached online, and to actively participate in the conflicts of the Middle East whose images are indistinguishable from the virtual conflicts of video games.
In the minds of these Islamist-nihilists there is no clear difference between virtual massacres carried out on games consoles and the real massacres perpetrated in the streets of Paris. For nihilists, actually carrying out these attacks in real life is simply more stimulating than playing a virtual game, nothing more. Only the victims are real.
We would like there to be a simple solution to this epidemic of Nihilism. But the only advisable solutions would demand an unprecedented effort from Western governments. First, we would have to exterminate the small Islamist groups in Syria, which in turn would remove the schools and models for Islamic-nihilists. This would only be made possible by a huge, coordinated strategy with the participation of the Americans and the Russians. And with Obama as president, this will never happen. Or will he suddenly wake up?
Secondly, the Muslims of Europe would have to denounce these nihilistic perversions of Islam, yet so far many have remained relatively silent.
Finally, the European governments have to reconquer and transform the lawless zones.
The implementation of even two of these three strategies would reduce the hotbed of the epidemic. But there is a risk that we will instead see acts of political one-upmanship, false accusations against refugees who have nothing to do with these events, useless efforts such as the closure of the borders (while the Islamist-nihilists are already within), and obviously pathetic military patrols.
The tragedy following the attacks in Paris is that the mediocrity of the subsequent analysis and response will encourage the Islamist-nihilist epidemic rather than cure it.