Paris has a long history with political terrorism; no generation has come of age without experiencing the tragic theater of violence on at least a few occasions. In the early 1960s, the issue was the Algerian war of independence. In the 1970s, it was Palestine and Armenia. In the 1980s, the Iran-Iraq war and the Lebanese civil war washed over the boulevards of the French capital.
Islamist terrorism came to Paris in the 1990s, again in the context of Algeria, which was in the middle of a civil war. Such terrorism became more pronounced after 9/11 just as the political agenda of radicals became more diffuse. Indeed, in the twenty-first century, terrorism in Paris has been one of small cells and young radicalized Frenchmen, shallowly political, but deeply excited by the bloodshed wrought in other parts of the world by the likes of al Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS).
For their target, terrorism has been an embarrassment. Six million or so French of Muslim origins dread being associated with the carnage. And France, as a major tourist destination, cannot afford to look like a war zone. Finally, it is an embarrassment for this Socialist government, already in electoral mode, which has been in office for two major strikes already—first in January and now again on Friday, November 13.
Since the 1980s, counterterrorism has been an integral part of French governance, not so different from public health, crime prevention, meeting inflation targets, and responding to natural disasters. After 9/11 came institutionalized counterterrorism, replete with new technologies and more resources. These mean that acts of terrorism should not be vicious surprises, unforeseen tragedies, but something that is bound to happen unless the government adequately performs its mission.
The attacks of November 13, in other words, are not the mark of a growing Islamist threat on French soil. They reveal a systemic failure of counterterrorism institutions to protect Paris. The scale of the attack, the multiplicity of targets, and the high death toll signal the magnitude
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