The horrific attack by ISIS in Paris on Friday, November 13th means that 2015 will end similarly to how it began, with the barbaric killings of Parisians at the hands of Jihadists terrorists. 2015 has been a very difficult year for Paris and for France in general; and the prospects for 2016 aren’t looking so bright either. One distressing tertiary effect of this attack is that because of the similarities to the Charlie Hebdo attack in the first week of the year, many in the American media and political class have easily fallen into the same responses, cliches and positions that they did in January. This may be unavoidable, but it also reflects a growing inability of any of us to think differently or accept new ideas or arguments as we desperately try to solve one of the most pressing policy and security issues of our time.
In the US, the universally expressed statements of horror and solidarity quickly gave way to American myopia that insists that everything that happens in the world is both a result of American policy somewhere and also should be filtered through the bizarre fun-house like lens of our own partisan politics. On the right, presidential candidate Donald Trump argued that strict gun laws in France contributed to the tragedy. This was quickly followed by the usual chorus of Republicans who, rightly or wrongly, attribute pretty much anything bad in the world to President Obama’s alleged weakness.
The left, equally unproductively, looked at a brutal terrorist act carried out by Islamic Jihadists who spoke of the greatness of their god as they committed these horrors, and sternly insisted that this has nothing to do with Islam. Others on the left berate those of us who express solidarity and sorrow with Parisians for caring more about the French victims, a diverse and multi-national group, than about victims of recent terrorist attacks in Beirut and elsewhere, while on Saturday night at a debate, Democratic candidates asserted that these attacks would not have occurred if President Bush had not led the U.S. into an invasion of Iraq in 2003.
There were also the expected non-ideoogical reactions, some simply expressing sadness, frustration and loss at the human tragedy of the killings. Others, as we almost see in these cases, aimed at generating a vague awareness of the event on social media. In this case, this included people changing their Facebook profiles to include a backdrop of the French flag, or using a variety of Twitter hashtags. The strangest of these, an apparent riff on #JeSuisCharlie, may have been #JeSuisParis. Even somebody like me, who barely passed French in high school, can see the odd syntax in a hashtag that translates into “I am Paris.”
America’s penchant to see almost everything as being about us is ugly, self-centered and counter-productive. Imagine for a moment that you are a Parisian who lost a friend or family member in these attacks. Would you want your most powerful ally to immediately start bickering internally about something as seemingly silly as a presidential primary or would you want understanding and support. Americans may want to offer the latter, but it is being lost in the din of the former. At this moment, the French don’t care about our debates over gun control, whether George W. Bush or Barack Obama is more to blame or which GOP candidate has the best Twitter response to the attack. As hard as it may be for many Americans to believe, this is about France, not us.
The French President Francois Hollande has described these events as an “act of war” committed by ISIS against the French Republic. President Hollande has also promised a strong French response, that has already begun. France is now a battleground in the war against Islamic terror, and it needs a strong and clear-thinking U.S., not an ally that is so focused on internal fighting and bizarre political rituals that we can only understand another country’s woes through how it effects our next election.
Every one of three Democrats and dozen or so Republicans running for President, with the possible exception of Rand Paul, has stressed that it is the role of the U.S. to lead the fight against various global ills including Jihadist terror. The variation of the line “the world is safer when the U.S. is strong and in the lead,” has become so shopworn this election cycle that we don’t even hear it anymore when it is invoked with great regularity in Iowa, New Hampshire, big foreign policy speeches by candidates and during debates. That sentiment may or may not be true, but it will not even be plausible until the U.S. understands that the time for displaying our partisanship to the world is not in the first few hours after a brutal attack in the capital of our oldest ally.
Lincoln Mitchell is national political correspondent at the Observer. Follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.