Last Friday in Paris, three heavily armed gunmen were walking by as I sat in the Gare du Nord, waiting for a train whose platform, despite imminent departure, hadn't been announced yet. People around me didn't pay them much attention. To them, it was nothing out of the ordinary. I tend to doubt the sense of deadly weapons in crowded spaces and gazed with some confusion, but I was also tired and not in the mood for internal debates. I was on the way home from a workshop, a few hours away from the weekend.
It hadn't been the most pleasant visit to Paris. The workshop was in the middle of nowhere, on a plateau far outside town, and I didn't set foot in the city. The commuter train that took me there subnavigated the center, bypassing the Eiffel Tower, the islands in the Seine and the cafés of the Left Bank as if they didn't exist. Underground and far from the light, I experienced a disturbing lack of civility.
Fare dodging is a Parisian tradition, and people breaking through ticket gates without paying is so common one doesn't have to wait to observe it. It happens all the time. And while everyone has to pay more for everyone who doesn't pay at all, it isn't such a big deal. Much worse was the man who inhaled deeply from his cigarette before getting on the train, only to release the foul air inside. Another man, a bit down and out but that's no excuse, urinated at a pillar right next to the platform, sending a flow of steaming piss washing against innocent feet. Getting off at the Gare du Nord to change into the TGV, I was nearly pushed back into the commuter train by a crowd without the most basic manners.
Later that day, a gang of cold-blooded killers put things back into perspective. Concerted attacks on a football stadium filled to capacity, a music hall, and packed cafés by weed-bearded cowards who rather die than answer for their crimes left 150 dead and a city in shock. Football? Music? Cafés? Why?
When Charlie Hebdo was attacked just ten months ago, some people said that "This is wrong but – they had it coming/they shouldn't have made fun of Islam/they were disrespectful". These statements are nonsense and probably more dangerous than terror attacks to the world I live in and treasure because they threaten my freedom more than any deranged gun-wielding motherfucker.
After Friday's bloodbath, no one will speak like this. The wanton killing of innocent people exposed the utter vacuousness of the terrorists. There were no scores, however imaginary, to settle. This was terror for terror's sake, murderous nihilism empty of demands.
After the attack on Charlie Hebdo's offices, the world stepped up to the challenge. The circulation of the magazine increased by an order of magnitude. The publishers were flooded with money, all donated so they could continue their irreverent work. There's now an English edition to spread to joy even further. A couple of sad terrorists had killed individuals but unwittingly launched a great advertisement campaign, with slogan, logo and all. If they had survived their crime, they'd still be punching themselves for it.
I can only hope that this attack will have a similar effect. The civilized world has thus far reacted with shameful hesitation and pathetic indecision to the outbreak of religious rabies in the Middle East. Packs of deluded murderers are rampaging with impunity through large swaths of Syria and Iraq, raping and killing thousands. If the terrorist attacks on Paris trigger a serious response, there will at least be one good aspect to the atrocity. The world would not only become a safer place but a better one as well.
Like a rabid fox that behaves unpredictably, rabid religionists are capable of any atrocity. There's no point debating them. Like rabies or any other infectious disease, Islamic fundamentalism has to be fought with force, determination and persistence. In campaigns against malaria, a scourge of humanity even more deadly than roaches from sandy wastelands, the generally accepted best strategy is aggressive protection – with nets impregnated to kill on contact. No one would argue that we don't need to protect ourselves better. But we also need to fight back. Malaria was eradicated from Italy when swamps were drained and the breeding grounds of the disease vector eliminated.
A lot of the draining to eradicate terrorism must be done in Europe where the contagion persists. Many terrorists have links to one particular neighborhood in Brussels, for example, and thousands have joined jihadist training camps from Europe. But eventually, the unified response of civilization to the Paris attacks must focus on Syria, not only to rid the world of disease but also to bring peace to a people that's been brutalized for too long.