It may be true of any historical string of events, but it seems that the now long scourge of terrorism always strikes people, particularly in the West, in the same way: that it is something unprecedented, almost millennial in its horror, and something that demands a response unprecedented in ferocity and finality.
That was the reaction of nearly every American and much of the world after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and it was the reaction to the coordinated attacks in Paris last week that left 129 people dead, many more injured and millions more fearful that they would never feel safe again. The Paris massacre was only the latest in a string of terrorist attacks that had killed hundreds of Russians on an airliner in the Sinai and, the day before Paris, scores of innocent Muslims in twin bombings in Lebanon by the Islamic State. Although more deadly, those did not seem so horrendous as Paris, perhaps because of the nationality or culture of the dead.
The fact is that we have been living with global terrorism in the West and this side of the Atlantic at least since 1983 when Shiite terrorists blew up the U.S. embassy in Beirut and the barracks of American and French peacekeepers, killing altogether more than 400 servicemen and civilians. We were all shocked that Americans sent to Lebanon for a benevolent purpose, to maintain public safety while Palestinian forces abandoned the zone of the Lebanese civil war, could be butchered so heartlessly. It was the largest loss of servicemen's lives since Iwo Jima — and they were peacekeepers! — and the biggest-ever loss of CIA lives.
Like the Paris massacre and 9/11, Beirut seemed to demand a ferocious response from French and American leaders. President Reagan declared that the United States would not be driven out by terrorists and would stand its ground and he sent Vice President George Bush to Beirut with the same message. Beyond a naval strike, the president never delivered the heavy retaliation he seemed to promise because his defense secretary and secretary of state disagreed on whether it was wise. After a few months, he quietly brought the Marines home.
Cultural and religious wars, of which terrorism is the modern tool, are not immune to the principle of cause and effect. Reagan's defense secretary, Caspar Weinberger, and probably Reagan himself knew that the Americans and French were not murdered because they represented freedom and enlightened democracy, which is the popular theme then and today, but because the Shiites and Druze believed the peacekeepers were not neutral but friends of Christians and Israel, the other combatants or sponsors in the Lebanese civil war. The Marine commander had advised against the operations that gave the Druze and Shiites that notion.
The first bungled attack on the World Trade Center in 1993 and the spectacularly successful one eight years later by the terrorist band that became known as al Qaeda intended to punish America for setting up camp in the sacred land of Mohammed and meddling in the holy business of Islam and also to pull America into direct combat.
The sabotage of the Russian airliner punished Russia for entering the Syrian civil war to bolster Bashar al-Assad, the enemy of Saudi Arabia, the chief exporter of modern Wahhabi jihad.
A band of French and Belgian terrorists, along with apparently one Syrian, did not attack Paris because they hated liberté, egalité and fraternité but because France was deeply involved in the civil war that had spread across Syria, Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan, principally to defeat the Islamic State. France had stepped up its bombing raids in Iraq and Syria after the Obama administration had fed it intelligence about planned attacks on France. It didn't prevent the attacks.
The massive air attacks on Raqqa and suspected ISIS compounds and the declarations of war feed the hunger of people to punish the barbarity somehow. Leaders must do something. Presidential candidates must show that if they were president they would be decisive and eliminate this scourge forthwith. The strength of arms and men and the will to deploy them, they say, are all that are needed.
It is indeed comfort food, but it will not do the job, just as Reagan sensed that it wouldn't do the job in 1983 and subsequent presidents and European leaders figured out that heavy arms and men couldn't accomplish it.
If ISIS and all the other jihadist groups formed a traditional military force, one battalion of Marines and a little air cover would rid the world of terrorism in two days. Whole cities and the homelands of all the refugees fleeing ISIS and the vengeance of a dictator can be destroyed, but the terrible idea that religious ends can be achieved by random murder and that God condones it does not surrender to conventional arms.
What might work no one has yet figured out. The attacks on the United States starting in 1993 produced a highly accomplished security state. It was accomplished with a considerable loss of individual liberty, but it has at least produced by now an intelligence apparatus that keeps us marginally safe and gives important but obviously not foolproof help to allies in more dangerous zones.
Combating an evil but fetching idea for the world's downtrodden is the hardest task of our time. Boots on the ground, massive firepower and no-fly zones aren't the solution.