France’s Response to Terrorism is Mostly Useless

I spent the holidays in France enjoying the hospitality of some friends, overindulging in cheese and wine, and trying out a tandem bike. The cheese and the wine were the same and the tandem bike was a nice addition, but France had changed since my last trip there four years ago. Evidence of the recent terrorist attacks on Paris felt immediately present . . . in all the wrong ways.

I’d already planned the trip when “Paris” happened, and as my arrival approached, I began to wonder how France would be different from when I was last there in 2012. Would there be more security at the airport? Would they ask me questions about my plans in the country? Would they give me the same ‘you’re a piece of dirt on my shoe’ treatment that Israeli border guards are famous for?**

I had my passport quickly checked after getting off the plane, but unless my bags were scanned on the tarmac, they weren’t screened. At border control, the agent looked at me for less than two seconds before stamping my passport. It didn’t seem like security had been particularly heightened, at least not for white girls with Canadian passports – not even ones full of Turkish passport stamps.

It wasn’t until I left passport control that I observed the first signs of France’s response to the attacks. A group of soldiers carrying machine guns big enough to make an NSA agent reconsider his position on gun control walked languidly, aimlessly past me. Aha! Finally, the heightened security. The soldiers were nearly all young men; few looked older than 23. This was probably for the best, I thought. If suicide bombers are willing to commit suicide to carry out an attack, opening a round of fire on them post-blast might not be much of a deterrent. The potential civilian casualties, on the other hand, could be enormous.

I did not take this picture, but it is very representative of what the soldiers look like. This is at the Gare du Nord, in Paris.

I did not take this picture, but it is very representative of what the soldiers look like. This is at the Gare du Nord, in Paris. Photo Credit: Evan Bench.

The patrols popped up in crowded places all over the country. Many of my friends shook their heads at their presence and the obvious inefficacy of the French response to the attacks. “There is no verification at many border checkpoints,” an AirBnB host told me. “At the big ones, yeah, but at the little ones, no. I drove to Germany on the smaller country roads the other day, and they didn’t look twice at me – just let me go through.” Later, a friend remarked that if even one of those soldiers had a violent mental illness, they might open fire on civilians, and that access to guns statistically raises the rates of shootings.

Early on in the trip, I learned from television that certain factions in French politics would advocate for stripping a terrorist’s French citizenship if they held citizenship in another country. Half of the group that I was watching with seemed to support this idea. “Well,” one said, “we wouldn’t take away their citizenship unless they had dual citizenship of course. They wouldn’t be stateless. Anyway, why should French people pay to imprison people who kill French people? It’s not like we have any money to spare!”

We had the same debate a few months ago in Canada, before the well-timed demise of the great bogeyman in the oilfields, so it isn’t like I can look down on France for proposing it. Embarrassingly, there are factions within my own country who would support this kind of thing even though Canada has never actually experienced a terrorist attack.

Others have said this before me, and they have said it better. This is a stupid idea. It is a stupid idea in France, and it was a stupid idea in Canada. It is cowardly and unfair. It is risky. It would open the door for human rights abuses. And it would allow France (or other countries who practice it) to shove the responsibility for its own problems on other countries who do not deserve to deal with them more than France does.

There is absolutely no guarantee that law enforcement in a terrorist’s secondary country of citizenship will ensure that the terrorist has no opportunities to be further involved in extremist activities. Once France revokes a citizenship, the French government will have no control over the former citizen. The former citizen could join militant organizations. They could use their understanding of French language and culture to help others carry out other attacks.

But let’s assume that the secondary country of citizenship will use their laws to put this former French citizen behind bars. Who is to say that human rights will be respected in their prisons? Who is to say that the prisons are secure? Terrorists deserve basic human rights – that’s the point of human rights. They apply to everyone, even terrorists and pedophiles. If France did that, how could they claim in good conscience to be a country that respects human rights?

Now let’s assume that this dual citizen has the citizenship of a country like Norway. Prison human rights are not going to be an issue. The French government strips him of his citizenship and ships him off to Norway. In Norway, Norwegian taxpayers shoulder the burden of this man’s imprisonment.

Finally, how can France truly claim to not having money? France has the one of the best standards of living in the world. France uses the Euro, one of the world’s strongest currencies. Sure, it’s not perfect: the unemployment rate is fairly high, but France certainly has more money than many of the places where a terrorist would likely be deported if they lost their French citizenship.

The French response wasn’t all bad. I heard about some programs meant for troubled youth that were opened in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, and many French people – friends and otherwise – made it clear that they didn’t agree with the more conservative discourses present in French politics and, like me, thought the military patrols were useless and dangerous.

At the end of my time in France, I had to go back to Istanbul to fly home to Canada. My train to the Paris airport left early in the morning. It was one third full, at best. Over the intercom, a sterile female voice kept telling us to make sure our bags were tagged with our name; otherwise, they would be subject to destruction. My bag was within my line of vision, but not tagged. I asked the woman next to me if it was as big a deal as they said, fully prepared for the afore-mentioned 18 year-old soldiers to board the train and cart my stuff off for some kind of incineration.

“Oh no,” said the woman, “It won’t be a problem. You and I don’t look Middle-Eastern. I don’t agree with the way things are, but that’s the way they are.”

**To be honest, while unpleasant, I think the Israeli approach to airport security is likely more effective than the approach France seems to have adopted.

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  1. Paul says:

    Awesome analysis. I’d like to take a moment to talk about the German side of things, from the perspective of refugees. I’ve been living here off and on for the past year, first in former East Germany and now in Bavaria. In this time I’ve been extremely fortunate to have met a few of these very often anonymous refugees, described most often en masse, as if they were some sort of voiceless (they are) plague (they are not). Worse is the media’s description of them as mere “migrants”, or worse yet, “economic migrants”. This is utterly disgusting, with Canada very much at the heart of this horrendous, very conscious mislabelling. These people are refugees. They are fleeing literally death. To call it anything else is cowardly, and then to justify policy based on these preposterous semantics makes my blood curdle. Then you get the people who are so apathetic and ignorant, passing judgement surfing on the most topical of facts: Why are they all young men? – (because who else would you send from your family to start a new life in a strange land?) – Why do they need help? They all have iPhones. – (because you’d of course leave your own behind when making a 3-month trek on foot across continents, right?) Ah, I forgot, you’re still thinking these people are primitives who haven’t got access to advanced technology like smartphones and GPS. What drivel.

    But enough generalizations. Let me tell you about my friends. Let’s put a face on these “economic migrants”. I know with two Iraqi brothers from a Christian town just outside of Mosul that was overridden by ISIS. They were presented with three options: convert, pay a special “non-Muslim” tax, or die. Fleeing was not an option, and had to be done in secret. Their older brother has since disappeared, likely executed. If these guys had stayed home they would have met the same fate. They fled as a family and their parents are now in Kurdistan, waiting in a camp until a country decides they are “good” refugees (Canada’s at the forefront of this disgusting movement). My friends meanwhile had to flee the long way out of Iraq – northeast, because they would have been victims to one of a variety of enemy forces anywhere else. They traveled to Germany *on foot*. Let’s focus on that again: they traveled from Iraq to Germany… ON FOOT. That’s over 3,000km. They were put in jail twice along the way – in Bulgaria and I think Hungary was the second spot… for literally no reason other than the fact that these countries aren’t prepared for dealing with refugees. Yes, that’s right: for convenience. Luckily, my friends were able to bribe jail guards in both countries (thousands of euros, the number I heard was €20,000 but I’m not sure if this included their whole, 3-month trek). There are thousands more young men like them, more or less exiled to a life in prison in these states because they couldn’t afford the bribe money. My friends were lucky. They made it to Germany and have since claimed asylum here and are both working hard at learning German, going to school, and finding meaningful work and continuing with their pre-fleeing lives as well as they can. And the most horrendous thing is they have cousins all throughout Europe who can help them with this most difficult of transitions, but whom they are unable to visit because of Europe’s antiquated, completely useless, fear-induced policies preventing them from free travel.

    Now before you fire a “yes, but they’re Christina; we have a problem with Muslims” argument at me, stop. Please, stop and just think. Do you know any Muslims? Yes? And how are they, as people? Good. Now just please generalize that, and not this ridiculous image the media has formed as Muslims waiting around corners with hands on daggers and fingers on suicide best release buttons. What, what’s that? You don’t know any Muslims? Well then, this entire dialogue is something you cannot possibly have an opinion on, contribute to, or even find any possible relevance for in your life. Maybe worry about something more local?

    More faces: there is the 17 year-old who came to Germany all the way from Ethiopia, where his father was involved in anti-government protests and was thrown in jail. I don’t know what happened to his father, but the boy was threatened that, being the oldest, the government had its eyes on him and he was next if anything should happen. The thing that breaks my heart is how he instinctively ducks from any movement towards his direction. I shudder to think what dark experiences lurk behind this fearful reflex. Then there was the other Ethiopian boy I met who had no family that I knew of and who made the trek across the Mediterranean in one of those that became synonymous with the mass migration we’re now seeing. I don’t know his story well enough to say anything, apart from the fact that I hold him in the highest regard for making a trek most of us in North America, quite frankly, would just not have the guts to even think about doing. Then there was the Malian, the Palestinian, and the Afghan who had miraculously made it to the French/German border, I don’t know how. These guys, as far as I could tell, were more economic migrant types (but still teenagers!)… but even this I cannot see as something bad. What is wrong with working hard, making sacrifices in order to have a better life? Africa and the Middle East has continued being ravaged by first colonial and now neocolonial powers, robbing both of their rich resources and destabilizing entire nations in the process. How is looking elsewhere foe the means to have liberty and happiness a bad thing? The majority of North America in fact consists of migrants and descendants of migrants just like these, fleeing wars and persecution and strangling rules. How could it have been okay for us to have come over back then, but suddenly it’s not okay for others to do the same now? We could of course get into the debate that these migrants are welfare-greedy, but I would immediately shut this down with the fact that these migrants – statistically! – provide greater wealth to the country by actually contributing to the welfare system through taxes and through starting up their own businesses. Honestly, any sort of argumentation down this path quickly reveals itself as a thinly-veiled, racist ideology of preserving the “racial purity” of a country. Ugh.

    These guys are fleeing for a reason. All the fear-mongering the news does with events like Cologne is just disgusting (if we want to talk about shocking rape statistics, we can look to American colleges). That even 30 “refugees” “might” have perpetrated what happened in Cologne and other cities, well, this is just a drop in the ocean. Keep in mind that Germany took in 800,000 refugees last year alone. That number of “30” is not even statistically significant, yet it will be used to keep people like my friends in Bulgarian jails to waste their young, most productive years away. Maybe developing a better-functioning police force is what people should be targeting?

    There are also much deeper problems of neocolonialism, racism, and capitalism being the true cause for this (honestly, who wants to flee home, ever?). If we want to really look into stopping crises like this, then we need to look into the military-industrial-energy complex that is very clearly making money from war, and taking a careful, unmerciful glance at the countries responsible for weapons production (the USA clearly tops this list, but Europe holds seven of the remaining top-ten spots, with Russia, Germany, France and the UK all landing in the top six). As mentioned in this post, guns inherently increase the chance of violence (duh). Maybe let’s stop makig so many of them? And maybe let’s look at Kabul and Baghdad before Western powers decided they would make for a cool playground to duke out their ideologies while the rest of the world was focused on formal debates that only reached up to the “heated” mark on the rage-o-meter. A great report explaining all this was recently featured on the CBC: (sic).

    Let me close with thoughts from my Lebanese uncle, a Sunni Muslim (so the “bad” ones, like ISIS or Saudi Arabia): “I have an accent, yes, but I’m not stupid. I don’t THINK with an accent.” Sometimes we forget that these foreigners we see mass-labeled are… just like us: people. They have hopes and dreams, they bleed and cry, they laugh and love and all that other fun stuff, but now they’re just trying to LIVE. Maybe we could help them a bit?

  2. Paul says:

    *Chistians; autocorrect. Not Christina. They both couldn’t possibly be her.

  3. Paul says:

    *Christians, obviously. They both couldn’t possibly simultaneously be Christina.
    *and not this ridiculous image the media has formed OF Muslims waiting around corners with hands on daggers and fingers on suicide-VEST release buttons.
    *How is looking elsewhere FOR the means to have liberty and happiness a bad thing?

    Kate, maybe you can make these corrections and delete this note? It’s tough to copy edit in the small comment square here, haha. Thanks!

  4. Kate says:

    Heya Paul, I do not believe I can copy-edit your comments (imagine the chaos when my brothers comment on my blog and I change all of their comments to “I’m a big dick-head!” But I got the gist and I think other people reading them will too.

    I agree with 99% of what you say, and I bet it’s a bit tougher to be dealing with this from Germany than from Canada where we can complacently pretend we’re doing enough while the entire world applauds us and our hot new piece of prime-ministery mancandy. (Seriously, will the adoring news stories stop already? I mean, he is way better than what we had before but just because he’s good-looking seems to also mean that he is above criticism in all major news-outlets.)

    I love the bit about your uncle too. And the bit about questioning whether it is wrong to want a better life. (The answer, obviously, is no. Especially when that better life includes safety and security for your children and not just a bigger house and car.) And the bit about how people in the West should stop being such hypocrites and just not manufacture weapons. Have you ever read Tolstoy’s “The Kingdom of God is within You?” It’s his treatise on why he’s a pacifist, and while he doesn’t exactly address gun control, he does talk about the many different excuses people makes in perpetuating war. I think you might enjoy it.

    The only thing that I would perhaps slightly disagree on is the bit about the Cologne rapists. While I agree that this particular case is fear mongering, closing our eyes to aspects of culture that do not jive with aspects of European/American/Canadian culture within refugee populations is not the answer either. My grandmother was herself an Iraqi refugee and she has told me before that if a women dress in ways that are too revealing, they shouldn’t complain when the rate of rapes rise.

    It’s a delicate balance, because cultures are not uniform, (my grandmother is old, perhaps younger generations think differently, and certainly, American campus rape rates are not good) but ultimately I think it is better to understand cultures without judging in a global sense (for example, after having spent months there, I can definitely state that gender equality in Turkey leaves much to be desired even though this is not true of everybody. That doesn’t mean that Canada doesn’t have its own problems with . . . mistreatment of Aboriginals etc.) To deny potential causes of difficulty in integration like gender-related violence by stating that they are transnational issues could potentially be harmful as well because it could be tantamount to closing our eyes to an issue that is potentially solvable. BUT it’s a fine line to walk because the correct response to these differences shouldn’t be about fear (and it’s buddy, racism), but about global education for new residents with a goal of, erm, lubricating people’s integration.

    Does that make sense? What do you think?

  5. Paul says:

    Hm, good point. I think we’re actually in full accord. I’m not tiptoeing around the delicate rape issue, just the last figures I read seemed to whittle down the more I looked into them. What started as over 100 “refugees” involved dropped to 20-30, of which only about 20 were refugees/foreigners, and the majority of incidents included groping/stealing with 2-3 incidents recorded as rapes. Ugh. I hate to get so mathematical about this because all of the above is deplorable and painful. But yes, if this is a clear issue of poor integration, then by all means lets not be politically correct and let’s tackle it from a policy standpoint (eg: in my pool in Vancouver there are clear signs in a variety of languages informing patrons they are not to shave in the showers, something that is otherwise seen as normal where these people come from).

    That said, I wish media would focus on righting wrongs and on moving forward rather than on so quickly dividing populations into separate camps… giving context for these situations would certainly go a long way here. How were these figures different from previous years, or from other regions? What (apart from the ignorant “Islam is primitive” reason) could have led to them? Were the men involved psychologically sound? Were there other cities with higher/lower refugee populations that had significantly different responses? Because the end result of such sensationalist reporting is a further alienation of an already repressed group of people, and that’s just bad for everyone involved. I don’t know, I wasn’t there, but the image I got from the reporting was of a pack of wild dogs (“them”) ravaging innocents (“us”). If I didn’t have previous and current positive exposure to Middle Eastern people, I would certainly be swayed by fear into mistrust if not hate.

    It’s interesting — and very tough — getting into this binary “good/bad” debate regarding cultures. I just don’t know how to approach it. My mind says that there clearly must be gradients along which cultures fall, but my heart chides me that in thinking so analytically I’m missing the entire point. And the more I understand, the more difficult it becomes to judge.

  6. Kate says:

    One last comment, just to expand on what you’re saying. I think it’s important to remember that, from a statistical perspective, it’s totally normal that refugees should be extremely traumatized, and it’s common for severely traumatized people to commit crimes or have difficulty behaving as productive members of society. In some ways it’s such an awful thing to say because it might trivialize the feelings of the people who are victims of their crimes. It also really muddies the waters of who is in the right and who is in the wrong in a situation. When exactly do you get to attribute blame or declare that somebody is beyond the possibility of healing or integrating into their new society?


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