Thoughts on the attacks in Paris

At the risk of inviting criticism for leaping in just after the tragic events in Paris last night, before all the facts are in, here are a few thoughts on terrorism and risk.

First and foremost, it is important to reject to the degree possible the heinous crimes committed.  It is very early still, but initial indications are pointing to some kind of jihadi terrorism (one witness heard a perpetrator yelling “Allahu Akbar” during one attack).  We will learn more in the days and weeks to come, and perhaps some group – IS? – will claim responsibility, but we must start by condemning all acts of terror against innocent civilians.

Second, we cannot let these events lead to rash action and ill-considered responses.  French President Hollande said that France  “needs to stand in solidarity and remain calm despite the attacks”.  Accusations, recriminations and outrageous comments will be made on what these events mean and what we should do about them (I have already seen a few stupid postings on the CBC website).  We must remain calm and level-headed and respond in ways that are both measured and have the best chances of meaningful effect.  Making rash, unsupported statements that verge on hatred and racism (i.e. using the tragedy to call for a moratorium on refugee acceptance) does nothing to help.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, it is crucial to put the attacks in perspective.  Yes, even at this juncture when the bodies are still being collected.  In fact, maintaining a calm approach is perhaps of primordial significance right now.

I was in Paris yesterday.  I was finishing up a two-week tour of northern and western France with my eldest daughter.  We were never in danger, thankfully: we left Charles de Gaulle airport just after noon and only heard of the attacks when we landed in Ottawa 10 hours later.

Our visit to the battlefields of Normandy and Picardy was a sobering one.  We visited countless Commonwealth cemeteries and saw far too many headstones marking the last resting place of too many young men from many nations.  We visited the monument at Beaumont-Hamel where, on July 1, 1916, the Newfoundland Royal Regiment was nearly wiped out in a matter of minutes in one of the many encounters we call the Battle of the Somme.

While the carnage is hard to contemplate, one thing stands out.  Both world wars represented existential threats to France.  The Kaiser’s army had marched to within a few miles of Paris in September 1914 before being pushed back, and the Nazis occupied France for four years before the success of D-Day in 1944 began to reverse the tide.  France fought for its very country and in both wars the enemy sought to wipe it off the map.

The attacks last night are no such thing.  They are horrible and the loss of life is unacceptable and we must all do whatever we can to identify those responsible – if they are not already dead – and bring them to justice.  But terrorism is not an existential threat to France, or to the UK, or to Germany, or to Canada or anywhere else for that matter.  Yes, terrorist groups can do a lot of damage and cause a lot of fear – terror – but even in the case of the Islamic State, which has territory and money coming in, they do not present a serious threat to any given state.  Terrorism rarely if ever leads to irreparable change and state failure.  We need to remember that as we move forward with our policies and actions in the days, weeks and months ahead.  Reacting with fear and unbridled rage solves nothing.

May the victims of yesterday’s crimes rest in peace and may their families be comforted during this terrible period.  Vive la France!

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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