This is how the bad times start.
An act of terrorism. A spike in fear and confusion. The public turns to political leaders for answers during a fraught time. Political leaders, scared of making a mistake or being seen as weak, stoke fear and promise vicious retaliation. The public turns to the media for analysis. The media, scared of making a mistake or being seen as weak, falls in line behind the political leaders. A consensus is thereby formed: Vengeance. Anger. A concerted push to brand one section of the populace as dangerous, and to crack down on them. A dismissal of all of society’s other issues as less pressing than the issue of terror and violence. A warping of priorities.
A group of less than ten fanatics attacked civilians in Paris with guns and bombs. More than 100 people were killed, and several hundred more were injured. It was an act of terrorism. It was a low-tech lashing out by a religious extremist group that France has attacked in the Middle East. It was an awful, terrible incident, perpetrated by criminals, who should be tracked down and rounded up and punished like criminals. It was an attack on an open and free society that can only be successfully countered by a society that remains open and free.
A terrorist attack by a fanatical extremist group against Western civilians is nothing new. September 11, 2001 brought this threat into the public consciousness in the strongest possible way, but such attacks had happened even before that. Terrorism will always be a tactic of choice for weaker groups that want to attack stronger ones. It is a way to even power dynamics using sheer brutality. For nearly 15 years, we have all known that such attacks were possible. They have been visited upon cities in Europe periodically over the past decade. All told, hundreds—but not thousands—of European civilians have been killed in London, and Madrid, and now Paris. These attacks are awful. But they are not new. They are a part of the world we have occupied for a long time now. And though they have existed in our world for years, the West has still been able to eke out happiness and prosperity and economic growth at the same time.
It would be nice if the advanced societies of the West—we who pride ourselves on commitment to democracy, personal freedom, rule of law, and steady progress—would at some point become able to absorb these terrorist attacks without reacting with insanity. We should not fail to mourn. We should not fail to do everything necessary to prosecute those who carry out these crimes. But we should not be drawn into the temptation to change our society into what we claim to despise in a misguided effort to seek revenge and to seal ourselves in a cocoon of safety that is nowhere to be found in this world.
Today, America is poised to decide whether or not we repeat the mistakes of our recent past. The rhetoric has already begun.
Ted Cruz, a serious candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, said that our collective enemy is radical Islamism, which “will not be deterred by targeted airstrikes with zero tolerance for civilian casualties, when the terrorists have such utter disregard for innocent life.” In order to fight those who disregard innocent life, in other words, we must ourselves become like them. We must become less squeamish about killing civilians, in order to show the terrorists that we are superior.
Other Republican candidates are calling for war and jockeying to see who can be the most unwelcoming to refugees fleeing the violence of Syria. Only by being inhumanly cold to the suffering of outsiders can we protect ourselves in this new era of fear.
The political media almost immediately shifted its conventional wisdom to hold that serious candidates must now be focused on fighting terror, again; that issues like health care and inequality and taxes and all the other more pedestrian and objectively more important issues must now be sidelined in the campaign narrative. The public’s vague fears must be caressed and catered to, even by those who know better.
Nobody—nobody—wants to sit idly by while ISIS wreaks havoc across the world. Those who would characterize any political opponent as advocating such a thing are not being honest. The truth is that there are two possible paths for us now. One is to demonize Muslims as enemies; to turn away needy refugees because they come from a country we fear; to cast aside civil liberties so that law enforcement and spy agencies can know everything about everyone; and to wage war in a fashion more merciless than those we decry as too merciless. The other option is to be all of the things that we tell ourselves we are in our national mythology: the land of the free; a welcoming spot for the tired, poor, huddled masses; a nation ruled by constitutional rights; and the beacon of civility in a harsh and dangerous world.
Our mythology has never been true. But as an ideal, it sure beats cruelty, hatred, and demonization. Let’s try.