Twenty-four hour news cycles have made adolescents of us. Captivated by the brutality, the horror, and the disgust of it all, we venture into the world of around the clock news with blindness that finds everything exceptional, without precedent. In the terrorist context, terrorism is Paris is far from exceptional. As a city of renown, it attacks there have offered maximum exposure and considerable notoriety.
The scale of the attacks on Friday were intended to terrify. There were 129 confirmed fatalities, with 352 injuries. Of the injured, 99 are in a critical state. The attacks were initiated against various locations across Paris: the Le Bataclan concert hall, by far the most devastating; outside the Stade de France; the La Belle Equipe pavement café; and two restaurants, Le Carillon and Le Petit Cambodge. There were three attack crews, all with suicide bomb belts.
It did not take long for the imminent attribution of responsibility to be made. It had been the work of ISIS. It affirmed that France had remained a “top target” and that “this attack is just the start of storm and a warning for those who wish to draw lessons.”
Paris had already tasted violence in January this year, when the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were attacked. Twelve were killed, including three known cartoonists. French President François Hollande was then quoted as saying that, “This was an act of exceptional barbarity.” But while those at Charlie Hebdo were stunned by the paramilitary style of the killings, a foretaste had been provided in 2011 in a firebombing by disgruntled Muslims of the magazine’s previous Paris office.
That a second spate should arrive this year could hardly have been surprising, both from the context of precedence, and from France’s various stances in foreign and domestic policy. With a country of 5 million Muslims, a pool of seething discontent is easy to aggravate – and tap. With some 1,200 French citizens involved in Syria and Iraq, fighting under various Islamic flags, not to mention the obvious point of France’s role in the bombing of Islamic State targets and its efforts to oust the Assad regime, clashes are bound to happen.
But for all that, the medium of the news cycle, with its rolling updates, unconfirmed reports, and speculations, followed by a near hypnotic replay of the same images and captions, serve to enhance the terror effect. The historical eye is blinded; reflection is not so much lost as buried.
If this eye were open to such reflection, they would see a country accustomed to the notion of terror, multi-factional and politically varied. In the case of Paris, they would see a city not only romanticised by the cult of love, but by that of violence. Many of these, though not all, have had their origin in some conflict in North Africa or the Middle East.
The decolonising drive in North Africa pitted various factions in favour or against continued French rule. This led to such attacks as the 1961 bombing of a Strasbourg-Paris train by the Organisation de l’armee secrete (OAS). The organisation was particularly peeved by the notion that France would dare relinquish its colonial possessions. The Algerian National Liberation Front reciprocated, launching attacks on French policemen in Paris as part of their program of bringing terror home.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Paris again made the news for reasons of terrorist violence. The protagonist in this case was an enterprising “Carlos the Jackal,” a Venezuelan leftist also known as Ilich Ramírez Sánchez. Having become a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, he initiated attacks on newspapers said to have pro-Israeli sympathies; launched grenades in a restaurant that left two people dead and engineered two bombings of France’s TGV trains which caused the deaths of eight people. Then came the failed effort on Israeli El Al aircraft at Orly Airport, just outside Paris.
Orly Airport was itself the site of another attack in 1978, which saw the deaths of three gunmen and one police officer after the gunmen opened fire on El Al passengers in the departure lounge. Obviously ticked by terrorist groups as a rather good spot to make a statement, the same airport again featured five years later, this time in a bomb attack by the Armenian group, ASALA at the Turkish Airlines counter. That venture left eight dead and 50 injured.
The Algerian terror theme revisited France in the 1990s, this time in the form of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA). France had been rather too enthusiastic in supporting the military regime in Algiers, which had cancelled national elections in 1991. The fear there, as is the manner of much in North Africa, was that an Islamist group would take the reins of power. The kibosh was taken to democracy.
Foiled in its efforts to fly a plane into the Eiffel Tower in 1994, the group initiated attacks on Paris and Lyon no less than seven times, including the Arc de Triomphe and a Jewish school. Eight lives were lost.
Experts in an area notoriously stacked with charlatans always repeat the same canards. There is the necessary psychological baggage. There is the popular notion of a template and whether certain terrorist groups can be discerned by distinct tactics. Easily forgotten here is that there is only one primary, and primordial motive: engendering fear. Fear is the poison that paralyses the respiratory system of democracy. It gnaws at the vitals of government accountability. It creates conditions ripe for demagogic relief.
The question now is whether the response will be exceptional. The formal line is that the reaction will be “merciless.” A massive retaliation is exactly the sort that moves the spiral of violence in ever more vigorous ways. But it is vital to remember that we have seen this before. The phenomenon of terrorism remains uncomfortably lodged in Paris’ DNA.