Terror in Paris – Three Prisms

Whenever an event seems impossible easily to explain, the event is impossible easily to explain. We search for facile answers. We reduce complex events to a single cause. We ache to fix what’s badly broke. But the real world precludes it. The real world is hostile to our desire to control whatever our situation – and to right whatever is wrong.

The terror in Paris falls into this category. The terror in Paris is not amenable either to a simple explanation, or to a quick fix.

To make my case I provide three prisms through which to view the recent events in the City of Lights. None should be considered more powerful a prism than the other two. But, together, they provide a way of grappling with the world in which, willy-nilly, we now live.

The Clash of Civilizations. The phrase is the late Samuel Huntington’s, an esteemed if also criticized political scientist, who for many years was on the faculty at Harvard. In 1993 he published an article in Foreign Affairs titled “The Clash of Civilizations,” that while controversial even now, has come to be regarded by many as prescient. Huntington wrote: It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic….The dominating source of conflict will be cultural…. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.”

The Wretched of the Earth. The phrase is the title of a book by Franz Fanon. Fanon was a psychiatrist and philosopher who died in 1961 at the age of 36, but not before having written The Wretched of the Earth, a classic of the leadership literature. Fanon’s view of the world was simple. He divided everyone into either master or slave, colonizer or colonized, bourgeoisie or worker, white or black, the former always free, the latter always in chains, if not physically then psychologically. Fanon’s mission in life was to end the inequity, once and for all, if necessary by force. He wrote: For the last can be first only after a murderous and decisive confrontation between the two protagonists….This determination to have the last move up to the front…can only succeed by resorting to every means, including, of course, violence.      

The End of Leadership/The End of Power. The first phrase, The End of Leadership, is the title of a book that I published in 2012, which argued that leaders were in decline, and that followers, ordinary people, were on the rise. Times had changed in ways that made it increasingly possible for people without obvious sources of power, authority, or influence to be preemptive or proactive, while those with obvious sources of power, authority, and influence were increasingly obliged to be reactive. This is not to say that in the past the powerless, even single individuals, never effected change – the young Serbian nationalist who assassinated Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 lit the fire that ignited World War I. But it is to say that in the 21st century governments, such as, yes, the French government,  have less power (and authority and influence) than they used to; that power has become more widely distributed; and that warfare, which typically was symmetrical, is likely as not now to be asymmetrical. I wrote: In the last one hundred years, relations between leaders and followers reached a turning point, if not a tipping point. Leader power and follower power became the more equivalent.  The second phrase, The End of Power, is the title of a book by Moises Naim that came out a year later, in 2013. His argument is essentially the same – that power is undergoing a “historic and world-changing transformation.”  Naim writes: The growing ability of small, nimble combatants to advance their interests while inflicting significant damage on much larger, well-established military foes is one way in which the exercise of power through force has changed. 




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