Because barely a day has passed since the news first broke of the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris, caution is in order about commenting, especially about the identity of the attackers, and other crucial details of the strikes. Nonetheless, some observations can reasonably and usefully be drawn, and some important implications, including for a range of security and economic policies, can be identified.
> Except for the innocent victims and their families and friends, the Paris attacks weren’t a “tragedy,” as so many good-hearted folks have mistakenly supposed. Whether the aim is intentional or not, that term drains the event of moral content and inhibits clear thinking. In particular, it weakens the public’s determination to establish and enforce accountability – notably over the longer run, as the temptation grows to return psychologically to normality, along with shoulder-shrugging defeatist impulses. Instead, the attacks were an outrage and an atrocity. Making all efforts to prevent repeats are imperative both for self-defense and to create a better, safer world for future generations.
> Another term we need to excise from news coverage and discussion is “senseless.” The Paris attacks clearly were intended to further a political and policy agenda: sowing chaos among ISIS’ enemies the worldwide, including in the United States, and dissuading governments from joining military efforts against the group in the Middle East, or from continuing or strengthening existing efforts. Indeed, these agendas – which are sadly likely to achieve at least some degree of success – are what justify labeling the Paris attacks as acts of terror. As such, they are utterly incomparable to the kinds of mass shootings in America and elsewhere that are carried out by obviously deranged individuals whose heads are filled with heaven knows what delusional “ideas” with no chance of attracting significant support or even sympathy.
> ISIS has now credibly claimed responsibility, and both the French and U.S. (albeit with some apparent reluctance) governments agree. So there can’t be much doubt that the attacks represent the latest instance of Islamic terrorism.
> As widely noted, the Paris attacks could well mean that this Islamic terrorist challenge is entering a new phase even more dangerous than experienced so far. Its scale and intensity more closely resembled the 2008 attacks on Mumbai, India, than the more targeted strikes on the Charlie Hebdo staff and on a kosher grocery store in suburban Paris, both in January. Indeed, the City of Light was literally a war zone for several hours, as both the French military and police were called into battle.
> There’s no reason to think that ISIS – and similar groups – will stop, even for the time being, with Paris. No one should rule out equally deadly follow-on strikes elsewhere in Europe, and – though less likely due to geography – the United States.
> Mumbai, of course, was all too easy for Westerners to ignore, even though many of the victims were Westerners. But because so many were not, and because it took place in a very far away developing country that’s typically dismissed as violence-prone, it hardly amounts to wallowing in liberal guilt to acknowledge that Mumbai’s impact in Europe and North America was orders of magnitude weaker than mass killings in one of the former’s crown jewels.
> Meaning no disrespect to all the dedicated individuals in intelligence and security agencies in France, and all over Europe, but if only because attacks like those in Paris require so many accomplices and so much on-the-scene planning and related activity, it’s clear that anti-terror strategies need to be dramatically improved. For example, it’s already been confirmed that one of the attackers was a French national who had been on a French government terrorism watch list since 2010. No doubt other lapses will be revealed going forward.
> Similarly, there can’t be any reasonable doubt that border security policies in Europe and the United States will need to be strengthened. Near the body of one dead attacker at the Stade de France was found a Syrian passport showing that holder had been admitted as a refugee into Greece in early October. It’s not certain that the passport actually belonged to the attacker – as opposed to a victim – although at least one report says the document was found on the attacker’s person. Further, another report has appeared of a second such passport. And another passport found in the vicinity reportedly comes from Egypt.
Although some analysts believe these documents to be counterfeit, and carried by the attackers to boost European opposition to admitting large numbers of Middle East refugees, properly screening these migrants is clearly a major challenge because terrorist infiltrators could easily exploit the chaos surrounding many entry points. And once in a country belonging to Europe’s visa-free zone (and Greece is one of these), visitors are free to travel passport-free among 25 others (including France).
It’s also important to note that America’s own borders, especially with Mexico, aren’t exactly hermetically sealed, and that serious mistakes by its own immigration authorities made the September 11, 2001 attacks that much easier to carry out. Indeed, six of the 19 September 11 hijackers had violated various American immigration laws, but were still in the country, including two who had overstayed their visas. As a result, supporters of lenient U.S. and European immigration and refugee policies clearly don’t want to hear this, but tighter restrictions are nothing less than essential.
> In this vein, these policies are bound to become far more controversial throughout the West, and it’s hard to imagine that supporters of stronger immigration controls – especially Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump – won’t benefit politically.
> Further, since many Islamic terrorists are nationals of victim countries, more aggressive surveillance and related counter-measures are simply unavoidable. For all the vital importance of preserving civil liberties, their preservation, as always, needs to be balanced against national security considerations that clearly have again grown in importance. No freedoms are ever absolute, and in times of emergency like this, it’s crucial to remember Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson’s warning in a 1949 dissent that “if the Court does not temper its doctrinaire logic with a little practical wisdom, it will convert the constitutional Bill of Rights into a suicide pact.”
> Calls for escalating the West’s military operations against ISIS have naturally proliferated over the last 24 hours, but the goal of decisively defeating this terrorist group is no more realistic than it was before the Paris attacks. As made clear by the decisive defeat of Al Qaeda following 9/11, the Middle East remains so terminally ill on so many fronts that it will remain a breeding ground for terrorism for the foreseeable future. And since, as I have written repeatedly, America’s allies in the region are too internally weak to “step up” and provide meaningful assistance to a coalition dominated by non-Muslim outsiders, the nation’s best hope for greater security is focusing on what it can plausibly hope to control – access to its own territory.