Is Paris the New 9/11?

Bloody milestones are hard to gauge. Nine eleven was the largest, indeed the first foreign attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor. It had completely changed the American perception of security, and brought about the war on terrorism, the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, Gitmo, and the Department of Homeland Security.

The attacks in Europe were more numerous but so far smaller by an order or two. They also occurred in different countries, giving each the dubious distinction of their own small nine- eleven. The London 7/7, the Madrid 3/11, the Charlie Hebdo attacks and now, again in Paris, the atrocity in St. Denis.

It is the cumulative effect as much as the increasing ferocity that makes the latest attack a sad candidate for a game-changer. We in Europe no longer have the luxury to think of the attacks as isolated aberrations and must see them as a systematic onslaught on our civilisation and our way of life. Some of us have been saying this for some time, but the prevailing opinion was of the attacks as a form of delinquency requiring policing and perhaps intelligence measures but hardly anything more than that. Now the rhetoric has changed to that of war, indicating that military measures must be a part and parcel of any successful strategy to defeat the terrorists.

The attackers now also have a name. It is radical Islam. As tempting and understandable as the claims made by mainstream Muslims and some Western politicians that al-Kaida and Isil have nothing to do with Islam are, it is no longer a defensible claim. Admittedly the fanatics, as fanatics always do, draw on a highly distorted, selective, and perverted version of the creed, but at the same time are able to justify their evil actions by quoting the Suras and the Hadith. This will now have to be faced, because to eradicate the evil will require not just military action, intelligence cooperation, and judicial action, but also a major educational effort, which can be undertaken only by the Muslims themselves.

The attacks in Paris came at the height of an unprecedented wave of refugees and migrants coming to Europe. That the former phenomenon will affect the latter is obvious. It will provide a powerful narrative to every European xenophobe and populist. There will be outlandish pronouncements about the threat coming from the refugees, calls for raising the bridges and hunkering down in the fortress Europe, and racist stereotyping from the political pulpit and some of the media. The best way to oppose this ominous tide, which threatens European democracy as much if not more than the terrorists do, is not to dismiss these claims out of hand as preposterous. Statistically, it is almost certain that among the hundreds of thousands of young men reaching the European shores there will be jihadists, members of terrorist cells, and potential suicide bombers. Empirically, it seems to be already established that some of the Paris attackers came via this route and teamed up with sleeper cells in European capitals, often consisting of EU citizens. No rhetoric will make this go away. Europeans will have to start taking their security seriously and create an integrated system of homeland security, just as the Americans did. The people coming to Europe to seek asylum and jobs will have to undergo screening by professional agencies, rather than by amateur interviewers. There will have to be pan-European watch lists of potential terrorists, including EU citizens. (Most Europeans assume this is already the case; it is not.) And there will have to be a strong pan-European control system of the external borders of the Union, including both a civilian and a military component, as the only possible way for the Schengen system to survive.

A particularly inane editorial in one of the largest Czech newspaper, has insisted that while we are indeed at war, the refugees are on our side. It is unclear where the author obtained this remarkable piece of intelligence, but should he be right, there must be ways to make use of this for the good for us all. As one of my former ambassadorial colleagues has brilliantly noted, the historic precedent of Czechoslovak Legions in World War I, consisting largely of deserters from the Austrian-Hungarian army, who raised arms against their former rulers, is a case in point. Syria and other places deserve better than to become de-populated deserts. Many of the refugees would possibly welcome the opportunity to obtain arms and training in Europe and deploy back in Syria to offer their people a better option than having to choose between Bashar Asad, “moderate” islamic groups affiliated with al-Kaida, and Isil. Perhaps, on the other hand, many of the refugees would shun this opportunity and prefer the safety of alien Europe to the perils of going back to their home country. We will not know until we ask the question. But if the latter should be the case, the refugees’ safety, and ours, will not last for very long.

Michael Žantovský

Michael Žantovský is the Honorary Board Chairman of the Aspen Institute Central Europe.

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