Whilst in the grip of emotion, is it right to comment on the terrorist attacks carried out on Friday night against several hundred people in Paris? Any analysis may appear cold at a time when compassion is the only appropriate responses. But an absence of commentary also 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 meaning. They were not carried out against the media, nor a religious community, nor the government. The targets in this case were unremarkable, and it is no doubt they were chosen for this reason. The terrorists wanted to prove they can strike wherever and whenever they see fit, while invading the ordinary lives of ordinary people. This development contributes to how overwhelmingly difficult it is to interpret this new terrorism according to the usual categories of traditional warfare and geopolitics.
We would like to rationalize 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.
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. In the same way as Christianity, Islam promises eternal life to those who have committed acts of kind- ness. 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: inexplicable, without reason or purpose. These events evoke a precedent: the anarchistic movements that ravaged Europe and the United States in the late 19th century, using more rustic bombs than terrorists 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 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 city 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 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 migrants 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 often lead to unemployment, and refusing to implement any discipline in the streets or the schools. These policies have created huge reservoirs for would-be terrorists. The terrorists in these neighborhoods stock weapons and drugs, and enjoy the support of their peers. That their lives have no meaning is what draws them to this “Islam for dummies” preached online, and to 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 video game consoles and the real massacres perpetrated in the streets of Paris.
We would like to have a vast range of simple solutions to this epidemic of nihilism. But the only advisable solutions would demand an unprecedented effort from Western governments. Firstly, 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. Will President Obama accept to get involved? Secondly, the Muslims of Europe would have to denounce these nihilistic per- versions of Islam, yet so far they have remained relatively silent. Finally, the European governments would have to reconquer and transform these lawless zones. The implementation of these strategies would reduce the hotbed of the epidemic. But there is a risk that we will rather see acts of political one-upmanship, the accusation of refugees who have nothing to do with these events, useless efforts such as the closure of the borders (while the Isla- mist-nihilists are already within), and pathetic military patrols. And yet another tragedy following the attacks in Paris may be the mediocrity of the subsequent analysis and response, which will encourage the Islamist-nihilist epidemic rather than cure it.