I discovered the severity of the ISIS attacks in Paris Friday night while sipping a whiskey and ginger inside, of all places, the United Nations. A man sitting next to me on a couch informed a friend of his, “They killed everyone in the theater.” Prior to entering the UN, I read reports of a dozen or so casualties in coordinated restaurant shootings. Now Agence France-Presse’s official Twitter declared around 100 dead. The mostly young, mostly well-dressed contingent in the UN continued talking and laughing – their chatter creating a buzz across the expansive, open room that resembled an airport terminal minus the pretzel stands and news hubs. Amid the caterwaul of a thousand conversations, the plight of France, my ancestral homeland, weighed heavy on my heart and mind.
Earlier on Friday, I completed Jane Mayer’s harrowing book The Dark Side describing in painstaking detail how the Bush Administration rewrote American law and ignored international doctrine, often in secret, to fight the War on Terror with torture tactics and wholesale spying on Americans. The dark side, a term famously used by Vice President Dick Cheney after 9/11, led America down a path to the horrors inflicted in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and secret black sites across the world. Our defiance of the Geneva Conventions, in hopes of preventing a second 9/11-style attack, compromised our standing as human rights leaders in the eyes of the world, surely, but did it make us safer? Are we safer from terrorist attacks than we were 14 years ago, I wondered as I closed the book.
I wonder the same today in light of the Paris attacks, which ISIS has declared are “the first of the storm.” France has declared the six coordinated attacks that killed 129 and critically injured 70 as “an act of war” and French President Francois Hollande has vowed the country will be “unforgiving” in its response while acting within the means of the law (i.e., following the Geneva Conventions?). Surely, the Forever War, to borrow the title of Dexter Filkins’ excellent book on the U.S. invasion of Agfhanistan and Iraq, will continue in the Middle East for the foreseeable future, albeit intensified. To what end, I don’t know. This is not a fight where the enemy – if you can even know for sure who the enemy is – lays down its weapons and surrenders.
Later today, I will join thousands of fellow travelers at Penn Station, journeying to points north, south, east, and west. I will pass military personnel with AK-47s and bulletproof vests – a constant reminder Penn Station could be a target at any moment. The potential hazards of train travel hardly end once the train is boarded. As one person making my way through the vast world – or today’s case to New Jersey – there is always a need to weigh vigilance and safety against fear. The Paris attacks show terror, sadly, can strike anywhere – a concert theater, a restaurant, or a stadium. Yet, to cower in fear of potential terror attacks (or gun violence in America) is to let fear dictate your life, and that is not a life I choose to lead.