As I write, France reels in the wake of a series of terrorist attacks on six different locations in Paris on Friday evening. So far, 153 people are confirmed dead from these attacks, most of them inside a packed theater where the American rock band “Eagles of Death Metal” was playing. The five other sites included the national stadium where, at the time of the attack by a suicide bomber, about 80,000 people were watching a soccer match between France and Germany.
Inside the crowded Bataclan concert hall, the four attackers stood up without warning during the performance and began firing indiscriminately at the horrified audience. Three of the gunmen were later found to be wearing vests fitted with explosives. They died from the explosions they themselves set off. The police have counted five dead terrorists, and are continuing the hunt for about seven or eight others who bullet-sprayed cafés and bars as they drove by in the same densely populated eastern section of Paris.
No terrorist group has, thus far, claimed responsibility for these deadly attacks on the City of Light—the worst since World War II, according to some observers. But, from the accounts of terrified witnesses inside the concert hall, French authorities believe these killings are likely the handiwork of Islamist terrorists from either the al-Qaida or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis). These orchestrated attacks recall the brutal attack on the staff of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January, not too far away from the Bataclan hall and the stadium. According to the initial investigation, the nature of the firearms used, the suicide vests, and the coordinated execution of the attacks suggest the existence of a highly sophisticated and disciplined group that was able to plan without being detected.
President François Hollande has declared a state of national emergency. Fearing further attacks, the mayor of Paris has urged residents to stay in their homes until the other gunmen have been neutralized. The French government has ordered its borders sealed to prevent any of the attackers from escaping. But a surge of panic and fear, the ultimate objective of such attacks, has engulfed not just Paris, but also the rest of Europe’s major capitals.
We can only imagine that these horrific attacks are similarly sending ominous ripples of fear across the world, prompting governments to take a second hard look at their societies’ vulnerability and security systems. Indeed, the Paris attacks could not have occurred at a worse time for the Philippines, with a whole week of frenetic hosting ahead of us, in connection with the Apec economic leaders’ meeting in Manila.
All of a sudden, the bullet-planting cum extortion scandal at our international airports, over which we have obsessed for more than a week, seems ridiculously insignificant when viewed in the light of Friday night’s deadly attacks in Paris. These events compel us to refocus our attention on the more pressing and complex task before us: how to ensure the safety of the 21 heads of state we are gathering at this summit, plus the 10,000 other foreign guests who are coming for the Apec meetings.
We would be very worried indeed if the authorities in charge of securing the Apec Summit were not closely monitoring these breaking events in Paris and analyzing their implications for the security systems they have put in place. I am sure they are mindful of the fact that it is not just the main venue they need to secure. Every foreign participant at these meetings, whether inside or outside the conference venues, is a potential target for terrorist groups whose goal is to sow public fear while calling attention to their boldness and the heroism of their cause. It is nearly impossible to control their every movement.
But, as pressing as the security issues are, it is the long-term impact of the Paris attacks on the modern world that should ultimately concern us. They are bound to decisively shape Europe’s attitude toward the refugees and migrants that are presently knocking at its borders. We can only imagine the powerful political backlash against migrants this will generate. For the longest time, Europeans have complained that some of these North African and Middle Eastern refugees could be potential recruits of terrorist networks. As implausible as that might be, given the rigorous screening procedures at immigration, these latest acts of terrorism can only strengthen the forces of xenophobia and racism that are now stalking all of Europe.
Since terrorism has become a global menace capable of striking anywhere, it would be tragic if every nation adopted a parochial and narrowly defensive view to deal with it. For that is exactly how al-Qaida and the Isis want nation-states to behave—i.e., like beleaguered tribes that, in their quest to preserve their respective cultural identities, cannot see beyond their borders.
This kind of reaction only reinforces the belief that global inequalities are to be understood as outcomes of racial and religious oppression rather than as functions of the global economic system. Or, that the quest for justice can only be sought in the antiquated approaches offered by religious and ethnic fundamentalism.
Perhaps it is fitting then that the Apec Summit, the G-20 summit in Turkey, and the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference in Paris are being held this November, in the shadow of these unspeakable terrorist attacks. This confluence of events challenges the world’s leaders to use these forums to arrive at more effective solutions to the old problems of global injustice, poverty and exclusion.
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