It is not hard to imagine the sense of dread Parisians have been experiencing in the past few days. As a New Yorker whose office was on the 88th floor of One World Trade Center, I naturally tend to think immediately of 9/11. What happened in Paris Friday night was on a much smaller scale, but in some ways even more horrifying. The World Trade Center, after all, was an internationally recognizable symbol. It was a natural target. But most New Yorkers, like most Americans, don’t work or live in internationally recognizable symbols—they can take comfort in believing that they don’t have the same vulnerability as those of us who spent five workdays a week in the Twin Towers. But the Parisians killed and maimed the other night weren’t populating a symbol; they were just doing the kinds of things ordinary people do on a Friday night to have some fun. Anybody could have been in one of those restaurants in the 11th arrondissement. The dread must be all the greater for Parisians in the knowledge that at least some of the perpetrators of the horror were fellow French citizens.
Atrocities like that of 11/13, not to mention the terrorist attack in Beirut a day before that killed 43, and the downing of a Russian civilian airliner not long before that, continue to arouse my sense of wonderment at the depths of barbarity to which human beings prove capable in the name of some allegedly noble cause. But I also find it hard not to think of unsettling comparisons. Right-thinking, decent Americans have repeatedly demonstrated their capacity for depravity in the fight for truth, justice and the American way. No one knows exactly how many non-combatants were killed as American planes and artillery bombed the hell out of the Vietnamese countryside to clear it of supporters of enemy guerillas, but they certainly numbered in the hundreds of thousands. These were victims of American terror, even though of course we didn’t call it that.
Or take the Korean War. Early in that conflict, U.S. military leaders set the goal of burning five major North Korean cities to the ground: the psychological impact of bringing the war to the people, one military document asserted, would destroy morale and the will to resist. Later, hydroelectric dams that produced electricity mainly for civilian use were bombed, flooding 75% of the land used for food production in North Korea; the aim, in the words of one Air Force report, was to cause “starvation and slow death.” Altogether, the death toll of the Korean War may have passed 3 million, with nearly three quarters of the fatalities civilians; many if not most of these were the of deliberate targets of American firepower. I’m sure you can make an argument for Lyndon Johnson and Harry Truman being less monstrous than the perpetrators of 11/13, but I don’t think it’s a no-brainer.
Yes, the US was fighting for a noble cause in both the Korean and Vietnamese wars–we were stopping Communism. (Actually, it was more complicated than that; I’m simplifying.) But the radical Islamists are also fighting for a noble cause—the centuries-old dream of establishing an Islamic caliphate. France, by joining in military action to crush that dream, was inviting retaliation. That retaliation consisted of terror attacks that victimized civilians—a strategy which American warriors, as noted, have repeatedly used on a grand scale. You and I don’t regard the Islamic radicals’ cause as noble, but probably more than a few Muslims would disagree; they might find the cause admirable even while rejecting the horrible means employed to achieve it.
Do I need to make clear that none of this is intended to justify or mitigate the condemnation of our contemporary jihadists? ISIS, along with Al Qaeda, must be destroyed. But in contemplating barbarity, we should also look occasionally in the mirror.