The Paris attacks signal a new and far more challenging phase of the era that began on September 11, 2001. As awful as that day was, Al-Qaeda was centrally directed and could be centrally disrupted. Not ISIS.
After 9/11, most of us felt that this was the beginning of a new normal; that daily life would never be the same. And then weirdly, life did return to something close to normal—until ISIS.
Despite the revelations of the Snowden files of a disturbing and far-flung surveillance apparatus that often combined overreach with ineptitude, the new national security state did not touch the vast majority of Americans the vast majority of the time. But the new wave of attacks on seemingly random soft targets, by an array of home-grown, freelance terrorists who are unknown to police, and inspired but not necessarily managed by ISIS, really does signal a new normal, in which civilians are subject to random attack anywhere.
After 9/11, the Prospect published a package of articles under the title “Defending an Open Society.” That straddle just became harder—on both fronts. Defense is now harder, and so is reconciling it with openness.
Here are some topics to ponder:
Civil Liberties and Surveillance. Since 9/11, most liberals have passionately believed that we can reconcile liberty with security, and that much of the new surveillance was unnecessary as well as illegal. We may have to take a harder look.
If French or U.S. intelligence had anticipated and foiled the Paris attacks through the use of even more intensive surveillance—which is surely coming—how many of us would have minded? At the same time, it’s still the case that a lot of surveillance is needless, badly executed, and counterproductive. This is genuinely tough stuff, which requires both executive leadership and unrelenting public probing.
A U.S.-Russia grand alliance against Assad and ISIS? Most readers of the Prospect have scoffed at the idea that the U.S. should make common cause with the thuggish Vladimir Putin, an idea promoted by Stephen F. Cohen on the left and Donald Trump on the right. But the idea just became a little less fringe.
In World War II, the U.S. made common cause with Josef Stalin, a far worse tyrant and geopolitical menace than Putin. ISIS evidently brought down a Russian plane, and Putin has a number of Islamists on his borders and inside Russia. Despite conflicts in Ukraine and elsewhere, the U.S. and Russia do have common interests here. A grand bargain, of the sort hinted at by Putin, would ease out Assad, end the Syrian civil war (which makes it far harder to target ISIS) in exchange for recognition of Syria as a Russian sphere of influence or client state.
Stabilizing Syria would also damp down the key source of the refugee crisis now overwhelming Europe. So a grand entente with Russia is outside mainstream discussion, for now, but far from crazy. It would be astonishing if this were not a key topic of the upcoming G-20 summit, which begins Sunday.
The 2016 election. On balance, things just got a little better for the Democrats. Hillary Clinton is the one candidate with serious foreign policy experience, and her relative hawkishness within the Democratic field now looks more prescient. President Obama, vilified by the Republicans for not having prevented this attack, looks like an adult in comparison with the entire GOP field.
The Republicans are divided between libertarian isolationists (Rand Paul) who now really look clueless; “Art of the Deal” types (Donald Trump) who would cut a pact with Putin, bully to bully; and the rest of the field, which is uber-hawkish but without any sense of what that means in practice. Usefully, they all embarrass and undercut each other.
Israel-Palestine. Israel just became more of a sideshow and less the main event in the Mideast. It’s clear that even if Israel and Palestine made peace tomorrow, ISIS would not go away. However, the continued affronts and incursions of the far-right Netanyahu government are one more source of grievance for the Arab street and one more source of recruitment for ISIS.
The West is losing patience with Netanyahu. Israel has been the centerpiece of Mideast diplomacy for more than half a century, but the West’s stakes are now far bigger than Israel. Bibi will come under increasing pressure to get with the program or lose the West’s support. If he is aggrieved by the U.S. making a deal with Iran over Israel’s objections, and by the EU’s most recent labeling requirements for products made in the occupied territories, these are only the beginning.
Gun Control. It’s not easy to come by several AK-47s in France. But it’s easy as pie in America.
Advocates of tougher gun control, at least as far as assault weapons are concerned, just got new and vivid ammunition, so to speak. They should maximize the moment.
In sum: This is an awful time for the West, for the Enlightenment, and for its children, liberal tolerance and constitutional, democratic government. But if you look back at the 20th century, it’s clear that we have endured and surmounted far worse.