I heard some inevitable chatter on Fox News earlier today (Friday, 9 January). Shep Smith and one of the reporters on the scene in Paris discussed a new revelation about the hostage crisis at the printing plant: there were far more hostages than the police had been aware of (15 or even 20 hostages, as opposed to the 5-6 reported previously. Note: The final count appears to have been 16 at the printing plant). The Fox crew seemed surprised and somewhat critical of this failure by the police.
But their expectations about what the police can do are the problem here. It turns out that the media have misunderstood what was going on since the initial attack by the Kouachi brothers and their accomplice on the Charlie Hebdo offices.
The elusive Kouachis have not been fleeing from the police, in the manner of the Tsarnaev brothers in Boston. They were fighting their way around Paris to the scene of their next attack – and apparently being assisted by others in a terrorist cell.
As the experts on Fox have pointed out, their activities were very professional. And they now appear to have been coordinated by a larger group. We know that the Kouachis self-deployed to Syria to fight there, and that one of them trained at a terrorist camp in Yemen.
Catherine Herridge reported couple of hours ago on Fox that an Al Qaeda cleric in Yemen is now known to have provided funding to the Kouachi brothers. Apparently, Cherif Kouachi also told a French source that Anwar al-Awlaki sent him to conduct jihadi operations in France.
What the Kouachis and their co-jihadists have done is bring some elements of the urban civil war in Syria (and Iraq) to the streets of Paris. There are estimated to be more than 1,000 French citizens who have self-deployed to fight with the jihadis in Syria (Fox, this morning; reportedly sourced to the French Ministry of the Interior). But there can be far more actual terrorists if this cohort turns itself into a terrorist army inside France.
The Syria veterans would serve as trainers, planners, and squad leaders for tactical operations. But there are a good million French Muslim men of combat age in the country; 10% of that number – the usual estimate of radical sympathizers among Muslims – would come to 100,000. Even a mere 10,000 of them joining an Islamist jihad in France would transform French life into something unrecognizable.
The situation has already changed
In a sense, this event is bigger than 9/11, even though the body count is much smaller, and the terrorists’ methods are less spectacular. The less-spectacular methods are actually an advantage for the terrorists, because the entry price for them is so low. It takes far less prep time and fewer resources to bring off a series of armed raids, in a target-rich environment like a major city, than to use jumbo jets as guided missiles to attack iconic American buildings.
What people need to understand is that this is too big for the police to handle. That’s why the French police have not been “in charge,” in the way we are accustomed to, at any point in this drama. They keep being surprised and rear-ended; even now, the jihadi gunwoman we know about, Hayat Boumedienne, is on the loose, having eluded capture in the standoff at the Jewish market.
The option of making the police bigger, giving them more weaponry and more arbitrary power, increasing the surveillance of the entire population in order to discover these plots beforehand, is a non-starter.
A free people cannot live that way. And if we are not a free people, then there is no point in the borders and constitutions we have now. The value of everything is up for grabs. A reset of some kind is inevitable, because the path we are on is unsustainable.
After 9/11 – in truth, after the airline attacks and hostage situations of the 1970s and 1980s – the free world began curtailing its freedoms on the margins. The bite on the margin was bigger after 9/11, but we proceeded on essentially the same course. Modes of mass transportation, and big gathering places like stadiums and arenas, are segments of life – separated venues we don’t have to be in very much – and it was relatively easy to concede a few freedoms (and much dignity) during the few minutes it takes to add “security” in them.
But we cannot concede the atmosphere in our neighborhoods and streets, or the profile of law enforcement – which today is minimal, respectful, and quiescent, if less so than it was 20 years go – and retain the features of Western civilization. We can’t respond to this challenge by beefing up law enforcement and remain who we are.
Nor would it even work to beef up law enforcement. It’s a human failing to assume that it would. Spying on and regulating people doesn’t prevent violence and unrest from a committed minority, as nations with guerrilla insurgencies have demonstrated frequently over the last 100 years.
But the terrorists will still be able to rely for some time on the reality that we don’t want to see that we’re in a war, and therefore change our expectations. We are comfortable with the idea that we can delegate regulation and enforcement to an authority, and thus allow most people to live in an unarmed and unalerted way, concentrating in their daily lives on other things, such as raising families and producing things of commercial value. We are (mainly) right to believe that we should be able to live this way, but this bargain depends on two factors.
One of them is that the overwhelming majority of people live in voluntary compliance with the laws and social mores. The other is that the cost of the occasional breach of that bargain – including the inevitable breaches the police can’t prevent – is low.
A terrorist army can make that cost spiral upward. And that process has already begun in Europe. It’s not something we’re still waiting for. The change has occurred. The war has started. The problem is already too big for the police, as we commission them to operate in liberal Western lands. To talk in terms of what the police “should have been doing” or “should have known” is to misunderstand entirely what is going on.
It’s easier, of course, to be clear on what we should not do than to outline what we should. What we should do will be some combination of reclaiming the West’s own ideas about freedom, men, and the state.
The way ahead
If we want to harden Western cities against jihadi attack cells, we will first have to coalesce around the elements of a Western-style strategy to win a war and then end it.
It is a very Western concept that war is an aberration, necessary for some purposes but not to be cultivated as a way of life, and that it must be prosecuted to a politically decisive “end-state.” We must not see our choices now in terms of what we can live with on a continuous basis, but in terms of what we must do to achieve a political decision: a point at which the jihadi attacks are behind us and a different future lies before us.
Many people will be reluctant to make that mental leap, but until we do, things will continue to get worse.
This war-style strategic framework does not mean that we have to kill Muslims in our midst or evict them from Western nations. It also doesn’t mean that we have to keep enlarging government and giving it more arbitrary power. I don’t want to do any of those things, and won’t make common cause with anyone who does.
But there are Western things we should be doing to change the momentum against radical Islamism.
1. One is to deliberately and forcibly achieve settlements in Syria and Iraq, where there are vast tracts of land up for grabs, daily enticing jihadis to both polish their fighting skills and dream of territorial expansion and an apocalyptic breakout for a caliphate. Except for the fundamental incompetence of the West’s current leadership, this would be by far the simplest part of the strategy. Clamping down on jihadis in a territorial battle, and annihilating their forces, is the bread and butter of Western-style fighting.
Yes, doing this would require picking – and shaping – allies in the region, who ought to do most of the fighting, and going with a single strategy and a set of goals that we would inevitably be criticized for. Imposing order on the region is worth that price – which would be much lower than the price we will pay if we leave Syria and Iraq to keep spinning off the ethic of apocalyptic jihad.
2. Another Western thing we should be doing is reaffirming our true heritage of political philosophy. In the last century, we have been preparing ourselves to accept sharia, by insisting on centrally supervised uniformity of thought and vision about all public and moral issues. We have forgotten the strength that comes with decentralization, true tolerance, and the moral dignity of the individual.
We must cease using our governments to harass people into conformity on disputable matters. In America, especially, we must rediscover the genius of federalism, which would solve a good 90% of our clash-of-culture problem with Islam, per se. If we want people to be able to either embrace Islam – or other religions – or not, then our practices have to change regarding what attitudes government will be used to enforce.
An EU that requires all citizens to demonstrate the exact same attitudes toward ethnic “diversity,” “LGBT” issues, and the hours in a proper work week is an EU that is already, in essence, a sharia authority. So are agencies of the U.S. government that go forth to extort big companies, school systems, and other local agencies on similar matters.
Our own politics and governments are making us a people unable to peacefully tolerate actual diversity. This problem cannot be overstated: it will be impossible for us to avoid a bloody, epoch-ending confrontation with Islamism, because we will have no organizing concept for an alternative to picking which lash we will live under. The true Western genius has been to find ways for vast populations to live in peace but not be under a lash. Only reclaiming that philosophical legacy will enable us to be the strong horse: to surge around and supersede the bloody lash of Islamism, as it forms in our midst.
3. A third Western thing we must do is reclaim the very Western concept of the armed citizen. Running in fear from that concept is an excellent example of a modernism that is not Western. From the earliest days of the ancient Greek hoplite – the citizen-soldier – the uniquely Western idea of human equality and man’s relationship to the state has been linked intrinsically with the yeomanry bearing arms on its own say-so.
All deviations from that, in the West of the last 2,500 years, have arisen from central governments hoping to impose forms of inequality on the people: some people armed and favored, some disarmed and subjugated.
But that doesn’t mean that Western life should revolve around armed confrontations and shoot-outs. The truth is that when there is a pervasive ethic of responsible armament, it doesn’t. We shouldn’t want or accept a future full of bloody shoot-outs with terrorists, but in the United States, certainly, history shows that’s not what we’ll have with an armed, alerted society.
What such a posture would actually be is one of the elements of a winning strategy. Alertment in the populace would serve to avert at least some jihadi attacks before they start. An armed populace would serve to deter the jihadi urge to attack in the first place, not only because attacks would achieve less, but because the determination of the people would be so much more evident under that condition.
Having to shoot under attack is inherently a bad thing, but being armed is not. Our objective should be driving the jihadi attacks down to zero – not disarming the people.
As with the question of insurance against terrorist acts, it may be necessary for a time to modify the perspective of law. Armed Frenchmen who could have killed the Kouachis at the outset, perhaps even before they started shooting up the Charlie Hebdo offices, would have produced a better outcome in a moral sense than the outcome we got with a disarmed populace.
If this seems to you like an appalling thing to say, you haven’t figured out yet that we have reached the breaking point. Our conventional expectations about law and law enforcement are inadequate to the life-or-death problem we face. Paying with our lives to continue honoring a set of expectations that doesn’t protect our lives will be increasingly intolerable. We can either choose to think critically, and entertain new ideas and solve the problem deliberately, or we will descend into chaos.
The choice is unavoidable
There will be much debate in the coming days. Most of it will begin by revolving around the “law enforcement” model of squelching terrorism. But we will find out that we’re already past that situational break point. The West no longer has the option of trying to preserve an increasingly dysfunctional hybrid polity: a society regulated and infantilized in key ways; dependent on and organized around “law enforcement”; exercising some freedoms but harassed and intimidated into relinquishing others.
The hybrid arrangement we have now is ideally weak and vulnerable to jihadi armies of urban terrorists. Trying to reinforce the hybrid will only make things worse. Our future lies in reclaiming true liberty, personal responsibility, tolerance, and citizenship. We can’t ignore anymore the unresolved contradictions we have admitted to our muddled thinking about those things. The time for choosing has arrived.