Max Boot believes that France is a success at counter-terrorism, despite “bungling” the case of Mohammad Merah. “Indeed France’s real mistake is not doing more to assimilate Muslims which ensures a constant supply of plotters,” Max writes; “the blame is more on society and government as a whole than on the security forces which are on the whole quite effective.”
Perhaps he is right. I am reminded, though, of something that Jean-François Revel wrote for COMMENTARY nearly three decades ago. The philosopher and former Résistance fighter who succeeded Raymond Aron as France’s most trenchant political commentator, Revel warned that Western democracies have a susceptibility to internal threats written into their genetic code. A democratic state can mobilize against external enemies, but:
can defend itself from within only very feebly; its internal enemy has an easy time of it because he exploits the right to disagree that is inherent in democracy. His aim of destroying democracy itself, of actively seeking an absolute monopoly of power, is shrewdly hidden behind the citizen’s legitimate right to oppose and criticize the system. Paradoxically, democracy offers those seeking to abolish it a unique opportunity to work against it legally.
Even worse, officials in a democracy who would call for harsher measures against internal threats would themselves be denounced as undemocratic. There is no easy exit from this “topsy-turvy situation,” especially in a country like France where rights and anti-racism are national obsessions second only to soccer.
What should democracies do? Revel’s first answer is a wake-up call: “don’t do what you are doing now.” And here I must respectfully dissent from Max’s conclusion. Whatever its past successes, France’s handling of Mohammad Merah suggests that it is helpless before the “lone wolves” of Islamic radicalism, who number in the hundreds of thousands. What France is doing about them now is not succeeding.
The second choice (to adapt Revel to the present moment) is to hope that, somehow, someday, the Islamists will voluntarily change their ways and agree to stop murdering Jews and anyone else who resists, simply by virtue of being who they are, the “household of Islam.” This of course is a fond but naive hope.
The third and final option is to accept the fact that the West is at war with Islamism. Among other things, this would entail the recognition that those who enlist with Islamism are the sworn enemies of democracy, who are no longer merely “expressing opinions” and exercising their right to disagree, but are seeking the violent downfall of democracy itself. In Revel’s terms, what is required is a new Cold War — against Islamism this time around.