With the third major terrorism attack on French soil in 18 months, the question "Why France?" is another way to measure the stakes that apply to us all.
PARIS — With friends in town visiting for the long weekend, we opted for dinner in our quiet neighborhood rather than jostling down by the Seine for a good view of the Bastille Day fireworks.
But once the bill was paid, we decided to haul our out-of-town guests up the hill to the Montmartre quarter to try and find a good perch to see the show exploding across town. Peering through the winding streets, we caught the grand finale with a small crowd that had gathered. It was, admittedly, a bit too far away to really count. Yet as we ambled back down the hill, that warm feeling washed over me of having just shared a moment of summer with complete strangers. Like the Fourth of July celebrations of my youth.
Sadly, of course, the Fourteenth of July festivities that honor the 18th-century revolutionary French ideal of freedom will now also mark the anniversary of an unspeakable act of 21st-century cruelty. With last Thursday's truck attack in Nice that killed 84 people who'd just finished sharing that city's own fireworks display, France has now suffered three major terrorist attacks in 18 months. This nation today stands as the West's prime target in an ongoing, generation-long campaign of radical Islamist terrorism.
"Why France?" is a question (both inside and outside the country) that is as imperative as it is a perilous slide into blaming-the-victim. Answers will depend on whom you ask: politics, demographics, the strict French form of state secularism they call laïcité, abandoned ghettos, colonial sins of the past, Syrian air raids of today, this country's role as standard bearer of Western freedom.
The targets have each been charged with carefully plotted symbolism: a satirical magazine's freedom of expression, Jews in a kosher supermarket, the freedom and fun of rock 'n' roll at the Bataclan concert hall — and now, on Bastille Day, the French Republic itself.
Without plunging into the colonial past, it's worth recalling the 1966 cinema masterpiece Battle of Algiers, which depicts the violent and victorious movement for Algerian independence from France. One scene expand=1] in particular shows a woman enter a crowded cafe to plant a handbag containing a bomb. We see the would-be terrorist look around and notice the smiling faces. There's a young child among them who would almost certainly die if she leaves the rigged device in the cafe. We see tension, even a glimmer of doubt, in the woman's face. She places the bag down as planned, and walks out. Boom.
Violence of course has been a means for both political and religious ends since humans first began to organize themselves in such ways. The storming of the Bastille after all was hardly an act of Gandhian nonviolent resistance. Since then, French ideals of freedom and equality have too often been an alibi for great swaths of historical arrogance and bloody errors. The freedom-loving U.S. where I was born and raised has, of course, had its own share of hubris that is more recent than either Napoleonic invasions or Algerian colonialism — and hardly disconnected from what's happening today in France.
But that scene from the movie came back to mind for another reason after the carnage in the south of France. It was the Nice attacker's chosen method for killing that was striking. Unlike the conflicted terrorist in the Battle Of Algiers film, there is no nervous glance at the faces of those about to be blown up. The driver on the Promenade des Anglais aimed straight at his victims, like some kind of rudimentary human-guided bomb detonating over time and space.
There has been much said about the reported mental illness of the 31-year-old killer, about how he had only recently started following the radical Islamist ideology. Perhaps the nature of this attack was different from Paris, Istanbul, Baghdad or Manhattan? No. Even if the details are different, it's more of the same. And it is quite obviously, for lack of a better word, war. Needless to say, a very different war than the one for Algerian independence — both in its ends and means.
In the wake of the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris, the British debated whether to join France and the U.S. in airstrikes against the Islamist State (ISIS) terror group in Syria. In a memorable speech in Parliament, Labour leader Hilary Benn, laid out what the West is up against with ISIS:
"We are here faced by fascists — not just their calculated brutality, but their belief that they are superior to every single one of us in the chamber tonight, and the people we represent.
They hold us in contempt. They hold our values in contempt. They hold our belief in tolerance and decency in contempt. They hold our democracy, the means by which we will make our decision tonight, in contempt. And what we know about fascists is that they need to be defeated."
But beyond military action abroad, the trickier question is how to fight this war on the home front, and not kill the ideals of the French Republic in the process.
Power of myths
In his 2011 book Sapiens, historian Yuval Noah Harari explains how the human race managed to rise from a relatively insignificant species to eventually conquer the planet, largely thanks to our unique ability for "mass cooperation." One of Harari's most provocative theses is that such cooperation — everything from the establishment of villages and nations to local business contracts and global religions — has been made possible for millennia by the use of "myths" that are (falsely) propagated as verifiable truths, based on divine authority or natural law, or both. In current terms, this would apply to both ISIS's bloodthirsty Islamist self-proclaimed caliphate, and the Enlightenment ideas of freedom, equality and human rights that were born somewhere between Philadelphia and Paris. Thomas Jefferson wrote:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by the creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
Harari says: No, there is nothing either natural or "self-evident" in these or any other such principles.
Still, even if Jefferson and Lafayette were selling myths, centuries later so many of us can't imagine life without them, while others are still ready to die to obtain them. Despite the failings of the nations that have relied on them as organizing principles, the principles themselves continue to represent a path to human progress in the best sense of the term.
The more frightening lesson in Harari's book is that the sheer scale of human history makes our supposedly self-evident progress look immensely small and fragile. We must, with both care and commitment, fight for it. So here's to the "myth" of the French Revolution, and seeing you at the fireworks next summer.
*Jeff Israely is the editor of Worldcrunch