At the stadium, the French and German national soccer teams were competing in front of a huge crowd. At the concert hall, an American rock band was playing. At a Cambodian restaurant, people were enjoying dinner. The streets were crowded and open with people of many races and tongues. There was color and light and noise and life in Paris. What an exquisite metaphor for modernity and civilization and pluralism. But then the bombs and bullets came, punctuated by those all-too-familiar words of savage piety: “Allah Akbar.”
Paris—and civilization—are under siege yet again.
Last time, the targets were a satirical newspaper and a Jewish market, this time a rock concert and a soccer match and an Asian bistro. The enemy’s war on the liberal world, on modernity, on civilization—a “jihad against the kuffar in every part of the world”—goes on. And to great effect: Not only are more than 130 unarmed innocents erased, but France is ordering its free peoples into their homes, militarizing the streets, closing its borders, cutting itself off from Europe’s open union of peace, prosperity and progress.
French President Francois Hollande restated what too many Americans have forgotten in the years since Manhattan was maimed—what our own president still struggles to grasp: we are at war. “It is an act of war that was committed by a terrorist army, a jihadist army.”
It’s a war because ISIS, al Qaeda and their kind define it as a war: “Soldiers of the Islamic State,” ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi howls, “erupt volcanoes of jihad everywhere.” A recent ISIS statement warns, “We will drown all of you in blood.” Osama bin Laden called on his followers “to kill the Americans and their allies…do not differentiate between those dressed in military uniforms and civilians; they are all targets.”
Like our paranoid World War II foes, Baghdadi delights in war and believes his people are under attack everywhere—listing China, India, “Palestine,” Somalia, the Arabian Peninsula, the Caucasus, “Sham” (Israel, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon), Egypt, Iraq, Indonesia, Afghanistan, the Philippines, Iran, Pakistan, Tunisia, Libya, Algeria, Morocco and “the West” by name.
Like our Cold War enemy, he hates freedom and wants to upend the liberal global order. “Let the world know that we are living today in a new era”—an era that will “trample the idol of nationalism, destroy the idol of democracy.”
And like his forefather bin Laden, Baghdadi’s weapon of choice is mass-murder.
The phrase “war on terrorism” was always imperfect. We cannot defeat terrorism, the critics countered, because it is a tactic or a method. Hence, they argued that a war on terrorism is a misnomer at best and would be futile at worst. However, the civilized world has defeated or otherwise marginalized uncivilized behavior and methods. In his book “Surprise, Security and the American Experience,” John Lewis Gaddis points to slavery, piracy and genocide. So, a war on terrorism is not necessarily a futile enterprise.
To be sure, this war enfolds more than military operations. Intelligence, law enforcement, development, financial systems and diplomacy play important parts as well. However, these are supporting parts because of the nature, goals and tactics of the enemy.
This is a war for civilization—for the right of free people to speak freely and travel freely and think freely, to believe in any god or no god at all, to laugh at cartoons or criticize them, to go to soccer games and rock concerts, to attend school regardless of gender.
Civilization strives to protect the weak, the unarmed, the innocent. Its enemies target and murder them. Civilization weeps when innocents are slaughtered. Its enemies cheer. Civilization is sickened by 11/13 and 7/7 and 9/11, by the Charlie Hebdo attacks and the Seder meal murders, by the Peshawar and Garissa killings, by the massacre of Shiites and Yazidis and Coptic Christians. Its enemies are emboldened by them. Civilization glories in difference and diversity, its enemies in sameness and submission, conformity and control, terror and tyranny.
Alan Dowd is a contributor to the Providence daily blog.
Image: “La Liberté guidant le peuple” (Liberty Leading the People), Eugène Delacroix, 1830