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Just as we had choices as a country after 9/11, we have choices now. And what we do matters.

The Paris attacks and a US response 

Sadly, the photographs in the media seemed familiar: people running in fright, a woman huddled in the arms of police officers, EMT's carrying a wounded man to an ambulance, people kneeling and lighting candles.

And then came the photographs from around the world: flowers laid in front of an embassy; soccer players in Peru standing in a line, arms around one another's shoulders, in a moment of silence before a game. The sails on the Sidney Opera House, the top of the World Trade Center, City Hall in San Francisco, the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, the Tower Bridge in London, the Pearl tower in Shanghai, lit in France's red, white, and blue.

Buildings and monuments in Taipei, Stockholm, Salamanca, Tel Aviv, Mexico City, Madrid, Bratislava, Brussels, Warsaw, all lit in the French colors. Amazon's home page displaying the French flag and the simple declaration "Solidarité."

"Today," said Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, "we are all France."

Well, we are all France for a few days, at least. But each country has its own problems and distractions (including Rajoy's, where the Catalan separatist movement threatens to pull his nation apart). What the November 13 Paris attacks reminded us is that we all share the problem of terrorists' threats.

And so we're back to the days after 9/11, when all the world was American. And just as we had choices then, as a country and as a member of an international community, we have choices now. And what we do matters.

But do what? When we're faced with something as complex and horrifying as terrorism, there's an understandable tendency - almost a psychological need - to toss the burden of decision to Washington, to recoil from the heavy individual responsibilities of citizenship.

But that's one thing we can't do. Just as for the ordinary human beings we send to Washington to act on our behalf, this is a time for us to become informed, weigh the options, understand the consequences. To pay attention, and to let elected representatives hear from us.

And it's a time to guard against anti-Muslim prejudice. Muslims have been victims of Isis brutality in the Middle East. And in France - and in the US - prejudice against Muslims is real and dangerous. In the wake of the Paris attacks, we can't let it flourish.

Several other things seem clear. The simple response to terrorism (and we're already seeing this coming from the mouths of politicians) is to just go get 'em, wipe ISIS off the face of the earth - and not let anyone cross our borders. But we can't react from our gut, letting anger and fear crowd out careful analysis. We can't sit back and let France (or Europe) act on its own. Nor can we, if we are struck again, act on our own.

Debates about the best response to terrorism will involve much more than consideration of the use of military force. Better minds than mine may know exactly how we should respond. Right now, I'm just trying to learn what I can. And reading through conservative and liberal commentaries about the Paris attacks, I came across several thought-provoking pieces that I've saved for more consideration.

YaschaMounk, writing at slate.com, warns of the danger that Islamophobia will increase. But he also warns about a problem on the left: the reluctance to accept that religious extremism is at the root of some of this horror. Can we talk about that without stereotyping a major religious faith?

Robert Kuttner, writing in The American Prospect, suggests that "the new wave of attacks on seemingly random soft targets, by an array of home-grown, freelance terrorists who are unknown to police, and inspired but not necessarily managed by ISIS, really does signal a new normal, in which civilians are subject to random attack anywhere."

Despite the "disturbing and far-flung surveillance apparatus" that the federal government put in place after 9/11, Kuttner writes, "the new national security state did not touch the vast majority of Americans most of the time." But with the Paris attacks, straddling the need to protect the United States and protect its values - its constitutional principles - "just became harder - on both fronts," says Kuttner. "Defense is now harder, and so is reconciling it with openness."

Kuttner lays out "some topics to ponder." Among them:

• Civil liberties and surveillance. Many liberals have been convinced, Kuttner notes, that securing the country doesn't require us to give up civil liberties. Were we wrong? "This is genuinely tough stuff," writes Kuttner, "which requires both executive leadership and unrelenting public probing."

• Our relationship with Russia. Do we need to set our concerns about Vladimir Putin aside and work with him to combat ISIS - even if that means helping him shore up Assad in Syria?

And from Paul Krugman in the Times, a caution against exaggerating the threat from terrorism - which, he says, "we shouldn't dignify" by using the word "war."

"The point is not to minimize the horror," Krugman writes. "It is, instead, to emphasize that the biggest danger terrorism poses to our society comes not from the direct harm inflicted, but from the wrong-headed responses it can inspire."

One of those wrong-headed responses: trying "to achieve perfect security by eliminating every conceivable threat - a response that inevitably makes things worse, because it's a big, complicated world, and even superpowers can't set everything right," Krugman writes.

One last thing: It's important, I think, to remember that as a nation, we are citizens of the world. And there are important international principles and laws that we should adhere to. On The Nation's website on Saturday, Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, issued "a call for justice - not vengeance."

Shortly after 9/11, she wrote, IPS and some of its allies published a statement noting that although the 9/11 attacks were directed at this country, terrorism "knows no borders."

"Our best chance for preventing such devastating acts of terror," the statement said, "is to act decisively and cooperatively as part of a community of nations within the framework of international law to root out terrorism and work for justice at home and abroad."

"We affirm that the United States is a nation of laws, rooted in fundamental American values of democracy, justice, human rights, and respect for life," said the statement. "The laws that protect our civil liberties and freedoms in the United States are part of what define us as a nation. They must not be abridged; to do so would offer victory to those who wrought these vengeful acts."

And yet in our response to 9/11, Bennis wrote, those rights were abridged ("Worse than abridged, they were crushed") as we tortured people, kept prisoners detained without respect to their rights, let our government spy on our own citizens, killed civilians in drone attacks, and engaged in racial profiling and detention of Muslims, Arabs, and Arab-Americans.

As Robert Kuttner said, this is "genuinely tough stuff." Do we sometimes have to place national security above civil liberties? When? Who decides? And what about international law? What about agreements we've made with other nations?

Sunday night brought the news that French warplanes had launched an attack on ISIS strongholds in Syria. Maybe as a result, the leadership of ISIS, if there is such a thing as a concentrated leadership, will be destroyed. Maybe the Paris attacks won't be repeated somewhere else anytime soon. But I think that ISIS, and terrorism, may be much more complex than that.

We seemed to have wiped out Al Qaeda's leadership, but then we got offshoots, and ISIS. This is not the kind of threat we have faced in the 20th century, in which we joined with other nations, sent our soldiers into battle overseas, worried, grieved over losses, and then welcomed them home. This is a different world.

Since 9/11, we have submitted to long lines at airports, to removing our shoes and opening our bags for inspection and being patted down by security personnel. And no more airplanes have hit buildings on our soil. But now there have been two attacks in Paris, this one worse than the assault on Charlie Hebdo's irreverent staff. If it happened in Paris, how unlikely is it that it will happen here? What would it take to prevent that? And are we willing to do whatever elected officials say it will take? To give up whatever rights we are told we have to give up?

Genuinely tough stuff indeed. But this is no time for simplistic solutions. And it is no time for shirking our responsibilities, expecting Washington to perform our personal duties as citizens. We elect a new president in less than a year.

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  • Just as we had choices as a country after 9/11, we have choices now. And what we do matters.

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