We’re All French – Let’s All Be Smart Too

The Paris attack is a tragedy – it is not a call to arms. Following the attack on Charlie Hebdo, we observed,

In the fall and winter that followed Sept 11, 2001, about 30,000 Americans died of the flu – ten times the number that died on 9/11. We should be thankful that in the greater scheme of things, even the worst terrorist attack in history doesnt amount to a whole lot. The US reaction to 9/11, particularly its ill-considered invasion of Iraq, has had far more terrible and enduring consequences. We should bury our dead and mourn, but we should not let our hunger for justice or security erode our most precious liberal institutions and values.

Nothing has changed. In a free society, bad people can more easily do bad things. When they do, our biggest mistake is to make our society less free. As Paul Krugman put it, “the biggest danger terrorism poses to our society comes not from the direct harm inflicted, but from the wrong-headed responses it can inspire.”

French President Francois Hollande has asked to extend the state-of-emergency for an additional three months, expanding the power of the police – a far less dire assault on liberty than was the Patriot Act. But one New York Times editorial writer now argues for a full-scale invasion of Syria and Iraq – seemingly incognizant of the fact that the rise of ISIS is the direct consequence of the last US invasion. According to Roger Cohen,

To defeat ISIS in Syria and Iraq will require NATO forces on the ground. After the protracted and inconclusive Western interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is reasonable to ask if this would not be folly. It is also reasonable to demand – and many will – whether military action will only have the effect of winning more recruits for ISIS as more lives and treasure are squandered. Terrorism, the old nostrum has it, can never be completely defeated. Such arguments are seductive but must be resisted…. Crushing ISIS in Syria and Iraq will not eliminate the jihadi terrorist threat. But the perfect cannot be the enemy of the good.

“Inconclusive” is a charitable term to describe the outcome of the US occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. “Utter and abject failure” better conveys the reality that neither Iraq nor Afghanistan exist any longer, and that Iraq is now a training ground for international terrorism – something it never was before the US occupation.

As for “the good” that might come of invading Iraq (again) and Syria, we might learn from the example of Israel, which, despite its half-century long occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, failed to curb terrorism through military force. The British military similarly failed in Northern Ireland. This is because terror networks, like ISIS, Hamas and the IRA, are primarily political organizations. They lack proper armies that can be met on the field and destroyed. Their personnel can seamlessly disappear into villages and towns in the face of an invasion, and can persist in the shadows for decades. The power of such organizations lies mainly in their ability to attract new adherents. And while movements come into and go out of fashion, their half life is often measured not in years but in decades.

The Paris attack was ideally calculated to produce fear and anxiety in the people of the city – targeting its best loved playground. The Canal-St-Martin neighborhood is a weekend destination for almost everyone, with hip bars and cafes, inventive restaurants, and a street-life that’s impressive even by Parisian standards. No one who has lived in Paris can fail to appreciate how easily they might have been one of the victims.

Though it’s far easier to type than to actually live by this advice – our best response is to mourn for those we lost; to trust in time to heal our psychological wounds; and above all: to carry on.


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Editor’s note: The Liberal Field Guide is off next week for Thanksgiving.








  1. Marco MOLINARO

    I’m not sure “war” is the right word but let’s stick to it. But if we are at war, it is one of ideas, and you don’t “kill” ideas. Retaliation in Syria may appease public opinion, give the impression the government is acting tough, “avenging” our dead, reestablishing “deterrence”, but it will only feed Isis more recruits. Reinstating border controls will give a false sense of security (the terrorists were French…). Threatening to strip bi-nationals found guilty on terrorist charges (if that can happen at all, as none was ever caught alive: self-sacrifice is a purpose) of the French citizenship may sound like a harsh threat, but I fear it raises dangerous questions on dual treatment of “true” French and “not really” French: a slippery slope…

    I totally agree with this post.

    The only weapon we have is to go on with our way of life. Keep going out at night, keep going to concerts (I have 4 planned by Christmas) or soccer games (2 planned by February…), etc.

    Today a young father whose wife was killed at the Bataclan published this: https://www.facebook.com/antoine.leiris/posts/10154457849999947 Perhaps you’ve seen it already and perhaps there’s a good English translation somewhere. Anyhow, this is the weapon we should wield.

    Less dramatically, I wonder whether such things would happen if the economy were stronger, unemployment lower, inequalities smaller, discrimination inexistent, integration a real prospect… Maybe instead of retaliating US-style the West should look for explanations to what is happening today in the last 40 years of ineffective, irresponsible economic and social policy.

    Ciao a tutti,


    P.S. BTW I read a lot of your posts, including some of those you need to be American to understand! P.P.S. It has been some time, and I have a bunch of music recommendations for you, but I’ll keep them for another mail!

  2. Carlton Thurman

    Agree its a “war” of ideas – and those arent settled on a battlefield between armies. Its unfortunate that horribly violent behavior has become fashionable among a certain set, but there’s little we can do except wait for it to pass – and hope it passes soon – and do our best not to freak out and do stupid stuff between then and now.

    Sure, the French could do more to help their persistent under-classes – but lots of neglected under-classes never turn to awful acts of terrorism to advance their cause. This is simply a bizarre cultural meme, that popped up for reasons that we’ll never be able to discern – anymore than we’ll be able to understand the rise of techno or burrata.

    The good news is that our best weapon – which you accurately identify as our western way of life – is pretty powerful. Young men tend to go for the rewards of school and work, instead of blowing themselves up and shooting people. Over time, that package has always prevailed.

    Having said all that, I’m also tempted to wonder whether if inequality were lower, young men might feel like they had a better shot at the things they want through education and work, and thus be less likely to try to achieve those ends through violence. Dont see why not.

    As for music, I will name names:

    Madilyn Bailey – you just need to get over the whole cover-artist covering Justin Bieber thing. She’s an amazing singer. Period.

    Melody Gardot – go get her 1st 2 albums and take it from there.

    Caro Emerald – Like Pink Martini, but without the annoying Japanese stuff. Plus way cooler.

    Lera Lynn – When she has a good song to sing, she sings the h out of it.

    Ryan Adams 1989 – not saying you shd own this one, or even listen to it, but you shd be aware that its out there.

    Tom Waits – If you dont have all his albums, go out and get em. Every last one. Dont think – just buy. Ditto for Nick Drake.

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