Terrorism is always one bad day away from being the number one issue in the world. The coordinated attacks in Paris on the night of Friday the 13th are the latest reminder of the calm urgency we should feel in confronting the threats from the death cults that march under the banner of Islamist terrorism.
When a great city like Paris feels the force of indiscriminate violence against innocent civilians at a concert hall, a stadium, a restaurant and a café, it is a strike aimed at the heart of all of us. It is designed to shake our faith in the apparent certainties of civilization: walking hand-in-hand with loved ones; grabbing a beer; catching a game; rocking out.
Terror is their aim, their method and their goal. And so defiance is the right response: They choose death. We choose life. They choose fear. We choose freedom.
Here in the United States, we’re standing in solidarity with our oldest ally. Two hours after the attack, the spire of the Freedom Tower that stands at the site of the World Trade Center was bathed in the blue, white and red lights of the French flag. Such emotions are instinctive, but as hours pass, thinking must catch up with feeling. We’ve got to sift through the wreckage to remember some enduring lessons.
Tough times can be clarifying. They raise the stakes and impose a sense of perspective. They make so many of the debates that preoccupy us seem small.
The politics of the 2016 election have been for the most part petty, bitter and divisive. These attacks should help dispel the fascination with the assorted celebrities, ideologues and demagogues masquerading as serious presidential candidates. Experience matters when the 3am call comes. Foreign policy and national security is the primary responsibility of a president. It can’t be outsourced to others or learned entirely on the fly. Bluster is not a substitute for strategy.
These days, it’s become almost fashionable to look back at 9/11 with a dismissive shrug and something like embarrassment at the patriotism that followed in its wake. The threat of terrorism is too often dismissed as overblown and defacto discriminatory. This is unwise in the extreme.
There’s no question that one of the lessons of the 9/11 era is that populist panic and official over-reaction can lead to a thousand unintended consequences. We cannot allow ourselves to become the dark mirror of the forces we’re fighting. Among other things, this only helps terrorist recruitment by fueling the myth of moral equivalence.
But we also cannot allow ourselves to be cowed into pretending that this threat does not exist. We’re always safest when we confront reality. And the reality is that there are people preaching death against anyone who dares disagree with them.
In the hours after these Paris attacks, one of the survivors of the theater massacre said the gunmen were shooting concertgoers “like birds.” Dehumanization is the essential fuel for committing atrocities. We are facing a form of totalitarianism. It is the antithesis of the liberalism that elevates individualism.
Evil exists and often creeps into people disguised as a perverted sense of purpose.
One of the defining dynamics of our time is fundamentalists fearfully lashing out at the converging cultural forces that flow from globalization. Pluralism is the antidote to their extremism, but it must be fearlessly defended. That’s why we at The Daily Beast were proud to publish the cartoons from Charlie Hebdo within an hour of the jihadist massacre at their offices back in January: an attack on freedom of the press anywhere is an attack on civil society everywhere.
The world can be a dangerous place. There is no “safe space” we can impose on a free society. There will unfortunately be more terror attacks in western cities. But whatever weakness our enemies imagine comes from the democracies they see as decadent will be ultimately overwhelmed by our strengths: liberty; diversity and the courage that comes from defending civilization rather than trying to destroy it.