The gratuitousness of the November 13 attacks in Paris is what sets them apart. Unlike the Charlie Hebdo murders, these attacks had no clear symbolic meaning. They were not carried out against the media, or the Jewish community, or the government. The targets in this case were unremarkable, and it is no doubt for this reason that they were chosen. The terrorists wanted to prove that they can strike wherever and whenever they see fit, while invading the ordinary lives of ordinary people. This banality prevents the authorities from protecting anything that may have tangible value: every French person has become a target, and frightening everyone was of course the intention.
The terrorists’ political objectives are opaque. Were these events part of the war in Syria, a way of punishing France for attacking the Islamist movement? Perhaps, but France has until now played a relatively small role in Syria and, in any case, the terrorist attack in Paris failed to dissuade the French from bombarding Islamist camps—President François Hollande ordered heavy bombing of Isis sanctuaries in Raqqa, Syria, over the weekend. It’s also difficult to relate this terrorist act to the rivalries between Islamist movements led by al-Qaida and Isis, each trying to prove to the other its superior ability to recruit militants.
The murderers themselves are just as confusing—and confused. If they expected a martyr’s death would lead them to paradise, then it’s clear that their understanding of Islam must have come from the Internet or from ignorant radical preachers. The Koran does not state that massacring innocents is a fast track to heaven. The terrorists’ motives and actions are better explained, in my view, as nihilist: inexplicable, incomprehensible, without reason or purpose, a love of death and fear for themselves. These events evoke the anarchistic movements that ravaged Europe and the United States in the late nineteenth century, with the same tendency for suicide and similarly vague objectives. Through its very irrationality, nihilism is uncontrollable. It’s not based on warfare or politics in any traditional sense, but on a collective, psychosocial pathology, which spreads by contagion like an epidemic. This is worrying, as the hotbed of this epidemic in Europe is enormous.
As we know all too well, suburbs of Paris and Brussels have become separate territories, filled with youths who spend their time dealing drugs and selling weapons. The police hardly dare enter these areas, the schools are deserted, and doctors and ambulances refuse to go there. This population is born of immigration, often dating back many years; today’s young people are the second- or third-generation descendants of parents and grandparents who came to work in France. The terrorists are the children of these neighborhoods, which they have transformed into lawless territories. The meaninglessness of their lives draws them to the “Islam for dummies” preached online and to active participation in Middle East conflicts.
There are no simple solutions to this epidemic. Only an unprecedented effort from Western governments will suffice. First, we would have to exterminate the small Islamist groups in Syria, which in turn would remove the schools and models for Islamic-nihilists. This would require that the Americans and the Russians work together, but, with Obama as president, this may not happen. Second, European Muslims would have to denounce these nihilistic perversions of Islam; so far, though, they have remained relatively silent. Finally, European governments would have to reconquer and transform the lawless zones inside their borders.
Implementing even two of these three strategies could make an extraordinary difference. Instead, however, we will probably see a different response: political one-upmanship, especially with regard to refugees; the closing of borders (which Isis militants have already breached); and inadequate military patrols. Such a limited response will not cure the epidemic.