Honestly, I don’t know whether to rant or weep, neither of which are usual impulses for me. In the wake of the slaughter in Paris, I have the urge to write one of two sentences here: Paris changed everything; Paris changes nothing. Each is, in its own way, undoubtedly true. And here’s a third sentence I know to be true: This can’t end well.
Other than my hometown, New York, Paris is perhaps the city where I’ve felt most at ease. I’ve never been to Baghdad (where Paris-style Islamic State terror events are relatively commonplace); or Beirut, where they just began; or Syria’s ravaged Aleppo (thank you, Bashar al-Assad of barrel-bomb terror fame); or Mumbai (which experienced an early version of such a terror attack); or Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, now partly destroyed by the US-backed Saudi air force; or Kabul, where Taliban attacks on restaurants have become the norm; or Turkey’s capital, Ankara, where Islamic State suicide bombers recently killed 97 demonstrators at a peace rally. But I have spent time in Paris. And so, as with my own burning, acrid city on September 11, 2001, I find myself particularly repulsed by the barbaric acts of civilian slaughter carried out by three well-trained, well-organized, well-armed suicide teams evidently organized as a first strike force from the hell of the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq.
The Paris attacks should not, however, be seen primarily as acts of revenge from a distinctly twisted crew, even though one of the murderers reportedly shouted, “You killed our brothers in Syria and now we are here.” Instead, they were clearly acts of calculated provocation meant to reshape our world in grim ways. Worse yet, their effectiveness was pre-guaranteed because, as has been true since 9/11, the leaders of such terror groups, starting with Osama bin Laden, have grasped the dynamics of our world, of what makes us tick and especially what provokes us into our own barbarous acts, so much better than our leaders, our militaries, or our national security states have understood them (or, for that matter, themselves).
Here in a nutshell is what bin Laden grasped before 9/11: With modest millions of dollars and a relatively small number of followers, he and his movement couldn’t hope to create the world of their fervid dreams. If, however, he could lure the planet’s “sole superpower” into stepping into his universe, military first, it would change everything and so do his work for him. And indeed (see: invasion of Afghanistan, invasion of Iraq), an operation mounted for an estimated $400,000 to $500,000, using 19 dedicated (mostly Saudi) followers armed only with paper cutters, did just that.
And it’s never stopped since because, just as bin Laden dreamed, Washington helped loose Al Qaeda and its successor outfits from the constraints of a more organized, controlled world. In these last 14 years of failed wars and conflicts of every sort, American military power, aided and abetted by the Saudis, the British, the French, and other countries on a case-by-case basis, essentially fractured the Greater Middle East. It helped create five failed states (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen), worlds in which terror groups could thrive and in the chaos of which they could attract ever more recruits.