Reflections on the Slaughter in Paris: Can We Learn from the Past?

The Associated Press
The Associated Press

I. The Administration Makes Its Priorities Clear

Do Al Gore, John Kerry, and Barack Obama now realize that there’s a greater threat than “climate change”? Perhaps, but perhaps not; innocent civilians are a lot easier to kill than the green dream. So the rest of us—those of us who fear mayhem and murder in the streets more than the sea-water level rising a foot or two in the next hundred years—have some serious work to do.

Just hours before the Paris attacks, in an interview on ABC News, President Obama confidently intoned that the terrorist threat from ISIS, or ISIL, was under control:

I don’t think they’re gaining strength. From the start our goal has been first to contain, and we have contained them. They have not gained ground in Iraq. And in Syria…you don’t see this systematic march by ISIL across the terrain.

But last night, in the wake of the “11/13” attacks in Paris, French President Francois Hollande blamed “ISIS barbarians” for the mass-murder.

So which is it? Is ISIS “contained,” as the President said yesterday morning, or is ISIS on the offensive? The answer, of course, is obvious: At least 128 people have been murdered in Paris, far from the territorial confines of the Islamic State. Perhaps at the next White House press briefing, Obama’s press secretary, Josh Earnest, will take on the hairsplitting mission of explaining that, yes, the president was right that “ISIS” is contained—but it’s the “ISIS barbarians” that are on the loose.

If so, having once again minimized the threat of terror, the Obama Administration can then get back to its true passion: combating “climate change.”

Secretary of State John Kerry, of course, is long on record as saying that “climate change” is as great a threat as terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, and yet even that bit of “threat equivalence” doesn’t begin to capture the enthusiasm that the husband of green billionaire heiress Teresa Heinz Kerry continues to show for the “climate change” cause.

And meanwhile, even as former vice president Gore canceled his “climate change” talkathon that was to stream live from Paris, we can still watch the Obama’s new green-inspired video on the White House website and on YouTube, in which the President tells us, “Today, there’s no greater threat to our planet than climate change.”

So clearly, the Obama administration and its green-zealot allies have made their choice: “climate change” comes first, and counter-terrorism comes second. (And as for other issues, including economic growth, well, their de-prioritization, too, is obvious.) So the rest of us are on notice: We can expect little, or at most inadequate, help from the incumbent administration; for example, as we have come to expect by now, Obama did not link the Paris attacks to Islam, or Islamic radicalism, in any way. By definition, one can’t defeat an enemy that one can’t bring oneself to name. And so as we look ahead to our own survival, we must draw our own conclusions as to what to do about it.

Happily, every two or four years we have national elections that give us a chance to fix festering problems, and change misguided policies.

Yet in the meantime, it’s painfully and tragically evident that we are flying blind on counter-terrorism and internal security, even as millions of Muslim refugees flock to the West.

II. France Is Overwhelmed

Beyond the shock of mass-murder, the most obvious point to be made is that the French security services were caught unaware. That is, they seemingly had no inkling of a plot that included scores—probably hundreds, maybe even thousands—of conspirators, collaborators, enablers, and look-the-other-way-ers.

Evidently, this huge group of terrorists was able to maintain its “operational security”—that is, the Muslim equivalent of omerta, the ancient ethnic code of us-against-them loyalty and secrecy. And so it was that the 11/13 terrorists could keep their multi-tentacled plan secret, even as they carefully synchronized their well-equipped attacks.

It should be noted that the French law enforcers are notoriously tough: They come, after all, from a tradition in which the Divine Right of Kings has often trumped everything else, including the free rights of the citizenry. As Louis XIV, their monarch for more than 70 years, once declared, “L’etat c’est moi”—“I am The State.” And because of that deep legacy of strong state power, French law enforcers operate under far fewer civil-libertarian constraints than do US law enforcers.

And so, after the fact, the French authorities had the power immediately to seal the border and, also, to conduct warrantless raids and searches. But again, the key point is, after the fact. As with the Charlie Hebdo attacks on January 7, the French flics were unable to identify, let alone thwart, a massive conspiracy that led to mass slaughter.

Once again, French cops don’t lack for skill, nor for hard-nosedness. Instead, what they lack are numbers relative to the size of the problem. That is, the two main police forces in France are the Police nationale and Gendarmerie; they total about 240,000. Meanwhile, France has a population of some 66 million, of which probably more than 10 percent are Muslim. So that’s six or seven million people—nobody really knows, and the number is increasing all the time—who constitute the huge “sea” in which ISIS-type terrorists can swim. And of course, worldwide, in this era of jet airplanes and open borders, the Muslim Ummah—including an unknown number of supporters, cheerleaders, and financiers—totals more than 1.5 billion.

Of course, one feels obligated—for reasons of civic piety, if not necessarily real-world accuracy—to adjure that the vast majority of French Muslims are good citizens. Yet nonetheless, the bloody facts on the ground speak for themselves: Yesterday, the terrorists were able to carry out their bloody mission, taking the authorities completely by surprise.

And the problem is only going to get worse: In Germany yesterday, Chancellor Angela Merkel went on nationwide TV to declare that taking in more Muslim refugees—how many more? a million? ten million? a hundred million?—was “the right thing to do.” Yes, it appears that the Germans are still working through their guilt-feelings over World War Two, and the Holocaust, in a strangely self-destructive way. Seven decades after Hitler’s death, they would rather drown themselves, demographically, than display any sentiment that hints at nationalism or even national sovereignty.

Okay, that’s Germany’s choice. But then Merkel—proving that the old German quest for hegemony is not completely gone—demanded that other countries within the European Union help carry the refugee load. “We need a fair burden sharing in Europe,” she proclaimed. Of course, the Germans indeed, have the financial clout to push the other EU countries around, especially France, which has been hobbled by the socialist economics of President Hollande.

Moreover, if Germany continues to fill up with Muslim refugees, it’s inevitable that some will make their way to France and other EU countries—and yes, absent a change in our policy, to the United States.

The bottom line: If you’ve never been to Paris, and always wanted to see it, well, it might be too late. To be sure, flights and hotel rooms just got a lot cheaper—but who wants to go touristing through a war zone? That’s the bad news. The good news is that you can still visit Notre Dame Cathedral, and all the other sights, on YouTube.

Yet if it’s too late for France, there’s still the urgent and current issue of protecting the United States. It’s worth recalling the motto of the US Army: “This We’ll Defend.” 

Yes, we have plenty of brave men and women in the military, who stand ready to give their lives to safeguard us. However, it takes more than bravery to defend a country; it takes brains, as well—starting, of course, with the realization that some threats are greater than “climate change.” But what is also needed is an historical appreciation of how nations have defended themselves in the past. As Winston Churchill once said,  “Study history, study history. In history lies all the secrets of statecraft.”

Indeed. If we allow ourselves to learn from the past, we can revive its successes, not repeat its failures.

III. We Have Been Confronted with—and Solved—This Problem Before 

The most important point to bear in mind is that we have been down this road before. Yes, we have faced the threat of terror, and overcome it. In fact, we can identify four distinct waves: the pre-World War One era, World War Two, the Cold War, and now, the Long War on Terror.

First, in the late 19th century, new nations, such as Italy and Germany, were forged in the fire of internal and external conflict. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the bonds of the United States had been reforged in the fire of civil war. Out of all those flames came new and often bloody passions—radical new “isms,” such as revolutionary communism and anarchism.

In America, the population more than doubled in the half-century after the Civil War, largely because of immigration, and in that period, three US presidents—Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, and William McKinley—were assassinated in the 36 years from 1865 to 1901. Also a former president, Theodore Roosevelt, was shot and wounded in 1912. As a result, the US Secret Service morphed away from its original purpose, combating counterfeiting, to its major mission today, protecting presidents and their families.

Yet even as top figures became better protected, other targets in that earlier era remained vulnerable. The headquarters of The Los Angeles Times was bombed in 1910, leaving 20 dead; a decade later, a bomb on Wall Street killed scores more.

In Europe during that same era, two czars of Russia was assassinated, as well as a president of France, a king of Italy, and a prime minister of Spain. Important women, too, were targeted: The empress of Austria was stabbed to death in 1898. And the famous Queen Victoria of England, who died in 1901, survived no less than eight assassination attempts.

Perhaps most fatefully in 1914, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne was shot and killed as he rode through the streets of Sarajevo, sparking World War One. What was then known as “The Great War” left some 18 million dead.

And yet World War One had the paradoxical effect of strengthening the nation-state and improving internal security; the wave of high-profile assassinations, at least, was ended. That is, countries strong enough to put armies into the trenches to fight a foreign foe found themselves strong enough to put armies of police into the streets to squelch terror at home.

Here in the US, after the Washington, DC home of US Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer was firebombed by radicals in the summer of 1919, the public was eager for an anti-“Red” crackdown; the “Palmer Raids” have been decried in history, but they were popular at the time. Furthermore, in 1924, a hard-charging young man, just 29, J. Edgar Hoover, was appointed to energize the sleepy Federal Bureau of Investigation. Professional civil libertarians screamed then and scream now, but the wave of terror subsided.

Meanwhile, overseas, Interpol was established in 1923. And so worldwide, too, random terror came to a screeching halt.

The second wave of terror came around World War Two. Faced with the threat from Hitler and fascism, a Democratic Congress enacted, and a Democratic president eagerly signed, the Alien Registration Act, aimed at monitoring non-citizen residents; the new law was commonly known as the Smith Act.

As President Franklin D. Roosevelt said at the June 29, 1940 signing ceremony, the legislation, although tough-minded, should be seen as friendly, not hostile; as the Thirty-Second President explained,

[The new rules] should be interpreted and administered as a program designed not only for the protection of the country but also for the protection of the loyal aliens who are its guests. The registration and identification of approximately three and one-half million aliens who are now within our borders do not carry with them any stigma or implication of hostility towards those who, while they may not be citizens, are loyal to this country and its institutions.

It’s worth recalling that back then, Uncle Sam felt compelled to act sternly when the number of “aliens”—if one can be permitted to use that un-politically correct word—numbered 3.5 million. Today, the number is at least 20 million, although, of course, nobody knows what the true number might be.

Back then, when faced with threats, US Government didn’t kid around. In June 1942, eight Nazi German would-be saboteurs crept on to American shores via U-boat. They were apprehended before they could do any harm, and yet within two months, six of them had been executed in the District of Columbia electric chair, and the other two, who had voluntarily turned themselves in, suffered merely decades-long prison sentences. And that was pretty much the end of attempted terrorism during World War Two.

Now to the third wave, during the Cold War. A decade after we made short work of Nazi spies, and after Hitlerite fascism was defeated in Europe, the US faced a new threat: Soviet communism.

Indeed, in 1950, even as outnumbered American forces were heroically repelling the North Korean invasion of South Korea, a Democratic Congress passed the McCarran Internal Security Act.

Among other provisions, the McCarran Act—spearheaded by US Senator Pat McCarran (D-Nevada), whose name still graces the main Las Vegas airport—required communists and communist-front groups to register with the Justice Department. Needless to say, the American Civil Liberties Union strongly objected; it and other “progressive” groups were able to persuade President Harry Truman to veto the bill. Yet as Americans were dying in Korea by the thousands in the fight against communism, the public was in no mood for pussyfooting. And so the same Democratic Congress quickly overrode Truman’s veto.

Yet on the whole, Truman was no softy on internal security. He was more than willing, for example, to oversee the administration of loyalty oaths for federal employees and others. And so having rid ourselves of an internal threat—and the new Steven Spielberg movie, Bridge of Spies, reminds us that it was, indeed, a long twilight struggle—we were able to prevail, too, in the Cold War.

So now today, the fourth wave of internal violence: The Long War on Terror.

Yes, we have the PATRIOT Act, but perhaps, in light of what just happened in Paris, we need more. In our time, if the idea of a loyalty oath sounds quaint, even antiquated, well, perhaps that’s our failing; yet it’s not the failing of the time-tested idea of affirming one’s loyalty.

Yes, maybe loyalty oaths deserve a revival. Perhaps we could start small, with, say, a wording that reads, “I pledge not to murder my fellow Americans.” And while many nogoodniks could easily lie their way through such an oath—even if they were being observed by a polygraph or other verification tools—many others others could not, especially nervous and jittery young men. And in France, if even one of the many conspirators and collaborators had cracked and spilled the beans, those hundreds or more Parisians would still be alive.

Meanwhile, here in the US, the key provisions of Smith and McCarran were first gutted by the courts and then either repealed or simply ignored.

And what’s the result? The result today is that we are flying blind: We are letting new millions of people into our country, and we don’t know the first thing about them.

Well, actually, we do know at least a little about them. Here’s what FBI Director James Comey had to say, earlier this year, abut ISIS in America:

Those people exist in every state. I have homegrown violent extremist investigations in every single state. Until a few weeks ago there [were] 49 states. Alaska had none which I couldn’t quite figure out. But Alaska has now joined the group so we have investigations of people in various stages of radicalizing in all 50 states.

Well, here’s a thought: Maybe ISIS shouldn’t be allowed into the US. Maybe we should roust them now, before they strike. You know, on the principle of better safe than sorry.

Ominously, the FBI’s Comey added that new technology is creating new tools for terrorists:

Slick propaganda through social media that goes like this: ‘Troubled soul, come to the caliphate, you will live a life of glory, these are the apocalyptic end times, you will find a life of meaning here fighting for our so-called caliphate and if you can’t come, kill somebody where you are.’ That is a message that goes out to troubled souls everywhere.

So it would appear that we know quite a bit about these budding terrorists in our midst. Of course, if we can follow their conversations, we can follow them—and arrest, incarcerate, or deport them. So again, let’s ask the obvious question: What are we waiting for?

Yes, let’s not wait. Let’s not hesitate. Let’s stop a Paris-style attack here in the US before it happens, not mourn our dead after the fact. “Climate change” can wait.


Next: A closer look at how countries defend themselves—or not.


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