As Auden reminds us in his poem “Musée des Beaux Arts,” suffering takes place “while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” As it happens, I was on a bus from Boston to New York when terror erupted in Paris this Friday the Thirteenth. The reports I received on my phone were still sketchy, mentioning only une fusillade. Perhaps it won’t be so bad, I thought.
I went to my hotel and changed for the evening’s event, a conversation with the French historian and political theorist Pierre Rosanvallon, which was to take place at the bookstore Albertine in a Fifth Avenue building owned by the French government. On the way uptown I took a phone call from a friend in Paris, who was calling to assure me that she and her family were all right. Only then did I begin to realize the magnitude of the attack.
When I reached the consulate, I found TV trucks and police and klieg lights waiting at the door. In the next block, in front of the bookstore, more police. Inside, I was informed that the evening’s event had been canceled “for security reasons,” but when I identified myself as one of the participants in the program, I was invited inside to join a small group of French officials gathered around a computer screen to watch the news from the scene. It was then that I discovered that one of the attacks, on Le Petit Cambodge restaurant, had taken place a stone’s throw from another restaurant in which I had dined myself a little more than a year ago.
Imagine an unpretentious side street in a neighborhood that has come up in the world in recent years. It reminds me of Harvard Square in the 1960s: young, hip, and animated, a little seedy by daylight, a little louche by night. Along the nearby Canal Saint-Martin you can find itinerant drug dealers, enlaced couples, and legions of the lovelorn hoping to become enlaced themselves. On warm evenings—warmer than one finds in mid-November— the picturesque canal is a place where people like to eat “à la grecque,” with wax paper for their plates and paper cups for the inevitable wine, when it is not simply sipped from open bottles passed from hand to hand. This is not a part of Paris where the strategists of war and peace or the financiers who decide the fate of the euro gather. It is a Mecca (forgive the blasphemous metaphor) for young people out for a good time.
So is Le Bataclan, the concert hall on the Boulevard Voltaire on the other side of the canal. It was a 19th-century music hall on what was then a boulevard notorious for its risqué entertainment offerings. On the evening of November 13 it happened to be hosting a concert by an American rock band, the ironically named Eagles of Death Metal, a B-list band that had nothing to do with heavy metal but will henceforth forever be linked to mass death. There are much larger concert venues in Paris, but access to these stadium-like fortresses is more difficult than at Le Bataclan, where the attackers could simply walk in the front door, kill the small number of gatekeepers, and proceed about their grim business.
What strikes me about these targets is that the attackers did not choose to go after symbols of state power or sites with ideological valence (such as an allegedly anti-Muslim newspaper or a Jewish market, as they did last January). They did not attack places where the rich and powerful congregate. They struck instead at the joie de vivre itself, at places where regular people go to unwind after work, to eat, drink, watch sports, flirt, converse, and be merry. A statement issued by ISIS after the attack equated this joie de vivre with “prostitution and vice”: “The targets included the Bataclan theatre for exhibitions, where hundreds of pagans gathered for a concert of prostitution and vice.” The message is thus that the Islamic State is at war not only with French policy in Syria but also with the French (and Western) way of life. What we consider innocent pleasure, they consider vicious and contrary to the word and will of God.
Such a declaration confronts policymakers with a dilemma. It is one thing to face an enemy whose aims we can comprehend but quite another to face an implacable nemesis whose thinking simply baffles us. As one writer recently put it, “We hide this from ourselves with theories and concepts that do not bear deep examination.” Since the attacks last Friday, we have heard any number of such theories and concepts. What I have written above probably adds to these futile attempts to comprehend the incomprehensible.
In Brooklyn on Saturday night I was introduced to a prominent Algerian writer, to whom I presented my inchoate notion that ISIS had deliberately shifted from ideological targets to what for lack of a better word I will call “civilizational” targets. They seek, I proposed, to negate the secular way of life altogether, to denigrate all earthly pleasure as “prostitution and vice.” He expressed no surprise at this interpretation. ISIS, he said, is following the Algerian playbook. In Algeria, terror was first focused on the colonial government and military. Then, in a second phase, it turned to cafés and bars. And then he paused before adding a further observation: When that failed to produce the desired result, rebels turned to a new target, softer still than restaurants and watering holes. They went into small towns and villages, where there were few police and soldiers, and began simply killing people en masse before the authorities could intervene.
So the worst may well lie ahead of us, and it seems increasingly likely that there will be no alternative to the unpalatable one of another direct intervention in the Middle East, possibly in alliance with Putin’s Russia. As Robert Kuttner has recently written, “In a nation such as ours that cherishes democracy, this brand of realpolitik is never pretty—and it can be executed well or badly. It makes strategic sense only when all the other options are worse.” To this the counterargument is of course that the last Western ground intervention in the region is what created ISIS. But those who accept this counterargument must explain what the alternative to extirpating ISIS is. Compromise seems impossible. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of refugees are fleeing the joyless life that the Islamic State promises them. The Paris attacks, coming on the heels of the refugee crisis, have made it clear that the ISIS menace cannot be contained within one region of the world. It is a global threat that can no longer be wished away.