I was in Paris yesterday. The plan was to go see a movie, perhaps, then join friends at home. The movie schedules meant that had we stayed, we would have returned home after dark, so, we left town early. For once, transport ran smoothly. A peaceful dinner with friends visiting from Montreal and Geneva. Then, the news broke and everyone drifted to the TV room to watch news of the carnage unfold in the 10th and 11th and the Stade de France.
This is France’s 9/11.
What happened in Paris last night is exactly what Europe’s security services have long feared, and tried to second guess. Determined, well-organized simultaneously rolling attacks, with automatic weapons and suicide bombers in the heart of a major European city, targeting multiple, crowded public locations. These tactics have been used before in Mumbai and elsewhere. Once shock and outrage have abated, there are many questions which will have to be answered, and the answers had better be right. How has such a well-organized sleeper group found its way undetected into the heart of Europe? Were the attackers French citizens, if so, how they were radicalised, armed and organised? In France, perhaps, or the Schengen zone, or further afield, perhaps in Syria, and by whom? Why weren’t they detected by the intelligence services? Is France, after two major attacks this year, uniquely vulnerable? Or does the carnage in Paris mean all of Europe faces new threats to our public places and events? And if a Syrian link is proven, will France’s instinct be to back off or will it redouble its commitment to the fight against radical groups there? Today, François Hollande used the words ‘act of war’. It might be good to remember that wars brew slowly – the First World War was a tragedy of incompetent leadership, pride and brinkmanship for the preceding twenty years and the relatively unimportant assassination of Archduke Ferdinand was the spark that lit the powder keg that set Europe ablaze.
I have written before about the idolatry of ISIL, making mention of the fact that the severest punishments in the Old Testament are reserved for those who sacrifice their children to Moloch. In a recent debate with Richard Dawkins, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks made the point that the story of Abraham and Isaac is the ultimate polemic against child sacrifice. The perpetrators and the ideology that drives them are transparently guilty of this very act and, this time, it’s personal. It can no longer be denied that radical Islam is a dark, malevolent and powerful force with a thirst for conquest and an appetite for retribution on a scale not seen for centuries. As I write, an audio communiqué from ISIL has just been released online, in fluent, Arab-accented French, claiming responsibility, indicating the targets were meticulously chosen for maximum impact. If this is, as Jeb Bush put it last night, ‘the war of our time’, then we had better get ready.