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opinion | Andrew J. Bacevich

Paris attack shows the West is not free from terrorism

A man holds a placard that reads “I am Charlie” during a minute of silence for the Charlie Hebdo victims in front of the EU Parliament in Brussels.reuters

Striking similarities link this week’s terrorist incident in Paris to the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013. In each case, a vicious attack perpetrated in broad daylight in the middle of a great city, kills and maims innocents. In each, the attack originates not from abroad, but from within. Both assaults involve brothers who identify with Islam. Both shock Western consciences and evoke a spirit of transatlantic solidarity. In an Internet instant, the phrase “Je suis Charlie” has become omnipresent, a tribute to slain Parisian satirists, who, it seems fair to say, few of us had ever heard of just days ago. It’s “Boston Strong” with a French accent.

The episodes resemble one another in at least one additional respect. As these things go, both qualify as no more than garden-variety atrocities. Had they happened in Peshawar or Baghdad rather than Paris and Boston, they would have attracted only passing notice.

Indeed, just last month, while most of us were preparing for the holidays, terrorists entered a school in Peshawar and slaughtered some 140 — a death toll exceeding by 137 the number killed at the Marathon. Most of the victims were children. Christmas proceeded on schedule.

And on Christmas Day itself, an AP dispatch reported a terrorist attack near Baghdad. In the town of Madain, just south of the capital, a suicide bomber killed 24 — twice the number murdered at the offices of Charlie Hebdo — while wounding 55. Demonstrators holding up placards proclaiming “Je suis Madain” did not flood the streets of Western cities.


The events in Paris and Boston seem “big” because they violate widely shared expectations that we in the West should be immune from the sort of violence (not to mention deprivation and dysfunction) afflicting large swaths of the non-Western world. We should not have to put up with such things — so we think.

What is the basis of this expectation? It represents the last remaining vestige of Western imperial privilege, persisting today in a seldom articulated, but tacitly accepted mental map of a world divided into two camps. One camp — ours — consists of places like Paris and Boston, filled with sophistication and delight. The other camp — theirs — consists of dark and disorderly places like Peshawar and Baghdad. For those lucky enough to live in our camp, being safe, warm, clothed, and fed is a birthright. As for the other camp, its inhabitants will just have to cope as best they can.


Periodic terrorist intrusions into our camp expose this neat division for what it is: an utterly obsolete conceit that cannot withstand serious moral or political scrutiny. Worse, indulging this conceit, however pleasant, inhibits our ability to see the world (and the predicament confronting Paris and Boston) for what it is. It’s past time to pop the bubble.

For decades now, our camp has opened up its doors to theirs. Nominally based on the principle that “all are equal, all are welcome,” the real impetus has been the need to recruit laborers for work — whether harvesting grapes, bussing tables, joining the Marine Corps, or studying for engineering degrees — that people of privilege no longer wish to do. As a practical consequence, the two camps today find themselves all mixed up together, as the ethnic diversity of both Paris and Boston testifies.

Now Bostonians know from firsthand experience that assimilating the “other” — whether Catholics, Jews, blacks, Asians, or Latinos — doesn’t come easily. The question at hand today is whether assimilating an Islamic population poses an altogether different proposition. Domestic terrorism perpetrated by recent immigrants is hardly a new phenomenon — remember the Italian-born anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti? Yet episodes of terrorism implicating Islamists are inducing fears that inassimilable Muslims in our midst constitute a growing enemy within that, in effect, serves as the vanguard of a far more numerous enemy abroad.

Take that view seriously and the policy implications are huge. Certainly, eliminating or even reducing that threat will require far greater exertions than those undertaken thus far. Bluntly, if Islam as such endangers the West, then deflecting the internal threat will require ruthless separation, a great unmixing through large-scale expulsions. Defeating the external threat will demand military efforts on a scale orders of magnitude greater than those attempted thus far.


After 9/11, the United States launched a military effort vaguely intended to pacify or democratize or otherwise “fix” the Greater Middle East, thereby supposedly reducing the Islamist threat emanating from that quarter. Based on the outcomes achieved in Iraq and Afghanistan that military effort must rate as an utter failure. Indeed, if anything, wars waged in the Islamic world only serve to exacerbate the sense of angry alienation felt by at least some Muslims residing in the West. War is making matters worse.

Perhaps the answer is to try harder. Perhaps, instead of sending puny expeditionary forces numbering in the tens of thousands, we should mobilize an army that consists of millions. Perhaps, rather than calling it quits after a decade or so, we should keep that army in place indefinitely. For surely, that’s what winning any so-called war on terrorism, if winning is possible, will require.

If on the other hand such a prescription is wrongheaded, as I believe it is, then the urgent need is for a radical reappraisal of Western strategy. That reappraisal should begin with the admission that there is but one camp, not two, with the politically motivated violence that we call terrorism certain to remain an ineradicable fact of life for all. Like crime, the best we can hope to achieve is to reduce its incidence. Like bad weather, we may hope to manage its consequences. But as with the poor, so too with terrorism: It will always be with us, a reality that does not exempt Paris and Boston.


As for the West’s ongoing war in the Islamic world, surely the time has come to acknowledge its futility. The application of military power will not change “them.” At best, it may be able to protect “us.” The central tenet of US military policy in the Islamic world should be to butt out, and the sooner the better.

We have arrived at a teachable moment. Whether we will learn what that moment has to offer remains to be seen.

Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations emeritus at Boston University. He is writing a military history of America’s war for the Greater Middle East.