France's 9/11: Will Europe Learn from America's Mistakes?

By Welch, Matt | Reason, February 2016 | Go to article overview

France's 9/11: Will Europe Learn from America's Mistakes?


Welch, Matt, Reason


THERE ARE MANY different American contexts in which one might hear the bellicose patriotic warning, "The red, white, and blue is coming to get you." A speech by a Muslim religious leader at a Brooklyn candlelight vigil is generally not one of those contexts.

Yet that's what I heard from Mohammad "Mo" Razvi, the executive director of a Muslim community group called the Council of Peoples Organization, at an interfaith ceremony in Carroll Park on November 15. It was two days after gunmen and suicide bombers ripped a bloody hole through the heart of French civil society, massacring 130 people in attacks at a rock concert, a soccer stadium, and several restaurants. We were gathered with more than 100 people in my neighborhood of Carroll Gardens, which has become the Brooklyn capital of French expatriates (including my wife), in part due to the dual-language program at the public elementary school across the street.

"We pray to God for justice and for these individuals to be taken off this earth," Razvi said, in what was by far the most saber-rattling of the remarks various local religious and political leaders made that evening. "If it's going to take our communities coming together and our governments to come together internationally, so be it."

Razvi's comments defy the stereotypes that were common back when Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) was known not as the anti-war stalwart that he is today but as the congressional progenitor of the shameful "freedom fries" micro-moment, in which french fries were renamed in congressional cafeterias because America's oldest ally was seen as too cravenly pacifist to support the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Not only is the French Socialist government now leading the global coalition against the Islamic State (ISIS), but some of the "moderate Muslims" that hawks are always urging to denounce Islamic terrorism are sounding more hawkish than many modern Republicans.

So much has changed in the world since 2001, and so much of it for the worse, that Americans have had a hard time fully grappling with the reality that this was France's 9/11. An international terrorist organization, in a protectorate carved out from a failed state (in ISIS' case, several failed states), reportedly coordinated and took credit for a brutal and deadly act of war designed to inflict maximum civilian casualties in the cultural heart of a successful civilization. The French reaction--and foreign policy challenge--is directly analogous to how America faced Taliban-era Afghanistan in September 2001.

The American discussion about France's choices has mostly clustered around two poles: hyper-interventionism and noninterventionism. Donald Trump, who has as good a claim on America's id in 2015 as any politician (God help us), vowed in early December that "I would knock the hell out of ISIS, I would hit them so hard," adding: "When you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families. They care about their lives, don't kid yourself. When they say they don't care about their lives, you have to take out their families."

Representing the other pole, Sheldon Rich-man declared in a November piece at reason.com that if "Americans and Europeans want safer societies, they must discard the old, failed play-book, which has only one play--more violence--and adopt a new policy: nonintervention."

A third way, represented most by the Obama administration, muddles somewhere between the two extremes: air strikes against ISIS, but not nearly as many as were deployed in prior Mideast conflicts, and no "boots on the ground" (except those worn by special-operations types, who are somehow exempt from the cliche). "This is a worldwide fight and America must lead it," Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton declared the week after the Paris attacks. And yet, "If we have learned anything from 15 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, it's that local people and nations have to secure their own communities. …

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