A postcard and flowers are left in tribute to victims of Paris attacks outside the French Embassy in London, Britain, November 14, 2015.
Suzanne Plunkett / Reuters

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.

A woman holds a sign that reads in French "We are united" as she gathers with others in tribute to the victims of Paris attacks near French embassy in Riga, Latvia, November 14, 2015.
A woman holds a sign that reads in French "We are united" as she gathers with others in tribute to the victims of Paris attacks near French embassy in Riga, Latvia, November 14, 2015.
Ints Kalnins / Reuters
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 of that failure.

Lessons will be learned in the weeks to come. The pedigree of the attackers will be established: whether they were terrorist virgins or already marked by the police, whether they were radicalized in prison or online, whether they had trained in Syria or Iraq or elsewhere, whether they were all Frenchmen or joined by foreigners, possibly concealed in the mass of refugees. The failure of the police to track them will be scrutinized; automatic weapons are hard to acquire in France, and their traffic should trigger all sorts of investigations. Some officials may have to be jettisoned—possibly even the dynamic Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who for months has overshadowed his president.

A policeman stands guard outside the scene of a shooting the morning after a series of deadly attacks in Paris, November 14, 2015.
A policeman stands guard outside the scene of a shooting the morning after a series of deadly attacks in Paris, November 14, 2015.
Benoit Tessier / Retuers
The motivations for the attacks will be examined by pundits—and probably traced back to French airstrikes against ISIS, which rushed to claim the killings. But whatever the claims, the political agenda of recent acts of violence is relative. New age terrorism in France is suicide made newsworthy by murder, murder made political by shallow references to ancient Islam and contemporary events. The axis of attacks on November 13 follows transit lines from the bleak banlieues in the north of the vibrant heart of the French capital. The targets were a soccer stadium and a concert hall, a bar and a restaurant—all symbols of normal life on a Friday night in the City of Lights. The world the terrorists attacked is one they would inhabit had they not made the radical choice to blow themselves up.

Terrorism in France is a security problem and an aesthetic problem. It is a security problem because terrorism, although contained, is endemic, and it is the Sisyphean duty of the many agencies in charge of counterterrorism to prevent attacks. The danger here is that the medicine kills the patient, producing a xenophobic society where state surveillance annihilates personal freedoms. If Friday the 13 has any winner, it is the anti-Arab, anti-Muslim, far-right National Front, possibly the most formidable obstacle to a Socialist reelection in 2017.

That is why the effort to fight terrorism should be directed at its other problem: an aesthetic of violence and self-destruction that has captivated an ultra-marginal fraction of young people. This aesthetic is not Islamic. French anarchists, nationalists, leninists, and Maoists have embraced it in various moments of the past century and a half. This aesthetic is now finding a receptive audience at the fringe of modern political Islam. The violence is not strategic but systemic: it aims to cleanse, to kill whomever can be killed. The attackers of November 13 pointed their guns down at the crowd, shooting long bursts in the dark at the mass of bodies. Unlike those who attacked the editorial staff of Charlie Hebdo, back in January, it was not the identity of the victims that mattered but the number of lives lost. Still, the two attacks have a common articulation: revenge. The cartoonists were killed in January because of their vulgar sense of humor. The frolickers were killed in November simply because they were enjoying a meal, a concert, a beer, a soccer game. They died as symbols of a society that needs to be destroyed, cleansed, annihilated.

The solution may not be less religion but just a little bit more, or at least its modern, secular equivalent.

There is no need to look hard at the pretense of political motives. Nihilism is not a political enterprise but a work of the imagination. Terrorism in Paris has almost always been a psychological affair—a tragic, obnoxious form of urban performance art on the theme of revenge and destruction. Revenge against what? Against disillusion and disappointment, against anger and boredom, against a diffuse fear of life itself.

Ironically, those are ills for which religion, including Islam, is therapeutic, giving fragile populations beliefs to stand on and a hopeful, pro-social direction in life. The solution may not be less religion but just a little bit more, or at least its modern, secular equivalent. The failure of the French authorities is not just the failure to detect the assailants before they killed. It is also, and primarily, a communication failure, an inability to convey once and for all the plain nonsensicality of this kind of terrorism. And this is because politicians, media, and intelligentsia alike have simultaneously allowed the demonization and victimization of Islam. Although the reality of Muslim life in France screams mundanity, the discourse still too often depicts Muslims as special—either monsters or martyrs. And it is in this idea of Muslim uniqueness that, for a few, the aesthetics of violence and destruction can fester.

  • CAMILLE PECASTAING is Senior Associate Professor of Middle East Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
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