Is it their randomness?
Why indeed? After all, 9/11 was far, far worse in terms of loss of life. The attacks themselves during 9/11 were far more high-tech and fiendishly clever, as well. There have been many, many terrorist attacks since, and they have all caused outrage and consternation. But something about the Friday the 13th attacks in Paris and the recent one in San Bernardino seems to have affected people more deeply than any other attacks except 9/11.
9/11 was so spectacular, so creative in a near-diabolical way, that it seemed almost otherworldly or like science fiction. The targets were major national symbols. Paris and San Bernardino were relatively pedestrian, as evil inspiration goes. They were fairly low-tech, and involved the sort of places we go to every day: random cafes and restaurants, a stadium, a concert hall, a business meeting and holiday party. Places to relax and enjoy, the sort of places nearly all urban people go to on a regular basis, or at least on occasion. That’s why it took very little imagination to put ourselves in the place of the unlucky (and mostly young) people who lost their lives there.
John Kerry was his usual flatfooted self when he seemed to offer a distinction between the Charlie Hebdo murders and the Friday the 13th massacres, both of which were terrorist attacks that happened in Paris:
There’s something different about what happened from Charlie Hebdo, and I think everybody would feel that. There was a sort of particularized focus and perhaps even a legitimacy in terms of — not a legitimacy, but a rationale that you could attach yourself to somehow and say, ‘OK, they’re really angry because of this and that,'” Kerry said during remarks at the U.S. Embassy in Paris.
“This Friday was absolutely indiscriminate. It wasn’t to aggrieve one particular sense of wrong. It was to terrorize people. It was to attack everything that we do stand for. That’s not an exaggeration,” Kerry added.
“Legitimacy” sounds like an apology—a rationale, if you will—for attacks that are unforgivable. But, without excusing Kerry in the least, I have to say that he has put his finger, albeit clumsily, on an important distinction that explains why people seem to have been more deeply upset by the recent attacks. It’s not just the ordinariness of the venues—it’s their randomness.
The Charlie Hebdo murders were many things, but “random” was not one of them. The victims were targeted for their behavior, and although it was behavior that Western societies defend as free speech, it still was behavior that was very different from attendance at any one of thousands of restaurants in Paris or going to a workplace. It was something most people could avoid without putting much of a crimp in their lifestyles. Not so with the Friday the 13th victims, or those in San Bernardino.
There are other reasons those later attacks have struck deeply at the heart and soul of Europe and America and the West. Prior to 9/11, if you were to quiz 100 people on the street, perhaps only one or two would have heard of al Qaeda or would know anything significant about it. But by the time of the Friday the 13th attacks and San Bernardino, the vast majority of people in the West had come to know much more about ISIS and exactly how bloodthirsty and savage its members could be. ISIS coming to Europe and America was something greatly feared because of this knowledge.
In addition, not long before these attacks occurred, the West had been rocked by a massive influx of so-called “refugees” from Syria, and the concomitant fears about who they were and why they were on the move from the relative safety of their refugee camps in Turkey and other Muslim countries. Many Europeans and Americans feel helpless in the face of their leaders’ failure to understand their concerns about the possibility of terrorists or terrorist sympathizers being among the new arrivals, or to even acknowledge that there might be something wrong with accepting all these refugees at this point. When some of the terrorists in Paris and in San Bernardino turned out to have taken advantage of the refugee flood and of the US visa program, faith in government’s ability to make the right decisions plummeted further.
In short, they—and we—feel vulnerable, unacknowledged, not listened to, betrayed, and literally disarmed in the face of a hidden enemy that has been revealed to have been as ruthless and bloodthirsty as the villains in a terrible nightmare. Only this nightmare is real.
[Neo-neocon is a writer with degrees in law and family therapy, who blogs at neo-neocon.]DONATE
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