Last Friday, ISIS attacked six targets in the city of Paris, including two restaurants, a concert hall, and a sports stadium. 129 people died, with hundreds more injured. There has been a variety of responses, ranging from bombings on Syrian targets by the French airforce to waves of arrests in Belgium and France. The world – or at least the Western world – is shocked by the audacity of the attacks.
Politicians in this country have demanded that President Obama do more to fight ISIS; governors from 24 states (mostly Republican) have also proclaimed that Syrian refugees are not welcome in their states, largely in response to news reports that at least one of the attackers had posed as a Syrian refugee to enter France. Other politicians have suggested that Muslim Syrian refugees be refused entry into this country. I’m sure that there will be other reactions from conservatives in this country, too.
A couple of observations, largely in a historical context:
First, I am appalled and disappointed by much of the news coverage of the tragedy. Few of the news outlets have done any in-depth reporting of the planning or circumstances of these attacks. Much of the news coverage – CNN, ABC, NBC – instead has taken the “happy news” slant: how brave the Parisians are, how Americans have shown their support, etc. (If I see one more photo of those sidewalk shrines/rubbish heaps, I may swear off watching the news entirely). I suppose it is cheaper and less time-consuming to resort to “touchy-feely” news reporting than to send serious, determined (and yes, courageous) newsmen and women to dig deeper. I would like to know how the attackers chose their “soft” targets – and wouldn’t it be helpful for all of us to know this before we go to a concert at Madison Square Garden or (heaven forbid) a basketball at the Syracuse Carrier Dome? Several of the attackers were French or Belgian citizens. How were they radicalized? Before we shut the doors on refugees, fearful of the ideas they might bring with them from a foreign land, shouldn’t we examine the forces in our own society that motivate people – those of Middle Eastern descent, for sure, but also the Ted Kuczynskis, Eric Rudolphs, and Timothy McVeighs, to use violence to produce terror and panic?
The end of the Great War (1918) brought with it a wave of radical and reactionary movements, not just in Europe but in parts of Asia and even the U.S. The biggest threat to American democracy seemed to come from the Bolsheviks, who had seized control of the Russian government in the autumn of 1917. To further raise the stakes, in 1919, Communists from around the world met in Moscow and vowed to spread Communism around the world.
In the spring of 1920, small bombs were delivered to a number of prominent Americans, including to the offices of John D. Rockefeller in lower Manhattan. That bomb didn’t go off, but a bomb delivered to the home of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer did go off, killing his maid and probably killing the bomber himself (details are hazy – it was a very sloppy police investigation). Of course, politicians and the media jumped right on this story, thus beginning the (First) Red Scare.
In September of 1920, a lunch wagon on Wall Street blew up, killing dozens of people, including employees of the Morgan Bank. The NYC Police Commissioner launched an investigation that ultimately proved fruitless, although it gave police officials an excuse to arrest and question Italian immigrants. Meanwhile, A. Mitchell Palmer, looking ahead to the Presidential election of 1920, used these events to his advantage. Two waves of mass arrests – one in November, the second in January 1920 – were carried out. Immigrants groups, mostly from Eastern and Southern Europe – were targeted, along with labor unions and other “radicals”. Over 5000 people were arrested and held without charges, sometimes in terrible conditions. Politicians at the state level as well as Senators and Congressmen called for mass deportations (no, Donald Trump didn’t create this idea) and an end to unlimited immigration. But, ultimately, most of those arrested were let go, and only a handful of “radicals” were convicted and/or deported.
A. Mitchell Palmer never even got nominated to the Presidency, and instead, the next President was an amiable, not terribly ambitious Ohio politician named Warren G. Harding. However, other Americans remained focused on “protecting America” or “keeping America for Americans.” It’s no coincidence that the 1920s saw a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, nor that the best -selling books of the time argued that white Americans of northern-European descent were superior to all other humans. Congress, beginning in 1921, began to tighten immigration restrictions, setting up various quota systems to keep out “undesireables” – those from Southern and Eastern Europe.
Where the current responses to the terror of ISIS will lead us of course is unknown. However, we should recognize that it is impossible to shut the door on terror or violence, no matter who we try to keep out. In a nation where racism still exists, violence is celebrated in the media, and the gap between the rich and poor is increasing exponentially, the capacity to recruit people to radical ideas is only growing.