If you’re an 18-year-old American, you were 3 or 4 when al-Qaida hit the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. You haven’t seen a major terrorist strike in your country since then. Maybe you heard about the attacks in Madrid in 2004, London in 2005, or Mumbai in 2008. But aside from the occasional lone-wolf incident—Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009, or the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013—you’ve been lucky.
You’ve grown up in an era of peace at home: no world wars, no Cold War, and little fear of being blown up or gunned down by militants. It’s an era of libertarianism: We’re less afraid of bad guys coming to kill us, so we don’t see why Uncle Sam should track our phone calls. It’s also an era of isolationism, because our troops have fought two wars overseas, in Afghanistan and Iraq, and they haven’t turned out well. We’re sick of those wars, and we feel pretty safe at home. So we don’t want to go fight again.
The libertarianism and isolationism of our time cross party lines. They affect President Obama, who came into office promising to bring our troops home. But they also affect Republicans. Sen. Lindsey Graham, the Republican presidential candidate who has campaigned on a platform of sending troops to fight ISIS, couldn’t even garner enough support in the polls to get into his party’s undercard debate last week. And if you study surveys on national security and domestic surveillance, you’ll find that Republicans are, by some measures, more hostile to surveillance than Democrats are.
What stands out most, when you look at public opinion on these issues, is age. Compared with their elders, people aged 18 to 29 are far less likely to pay attention to terrorist attacks overseas. In a Pew survey taken earlier this year, two-thirds of Americans aged 30 or older said they were very or somewhat worried about a terrorist strike in the United States, but most Americans aged 18 to 29 said they were not. A narrow plurality of Americans aged 30 or older favored sending ground troops to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria, but nearly 60 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 were against the idea. Last spring, a Quinnipiac survey asked voters what concerned them more about U.S. military action in Iraq and Syria: that it might go too far, or that it might not go far enough. By a margin of nearly 25 percentage points, voters aged 35 or older said they worried more that military action wouldn’t go far enough. By an equal margin, voters aged 18 to 34 said the opposite.
The same gap shows up in polls about surveillance. In a Washington Post/ABC News survey taken earlier this year, a majority of Americans aged 30 or older said it was more important “for the federal government to investigate possible terrorist threats” than it was “for the federal government not to intrude on personal privacy.” But Americans aged 18 to 19 were evenly split on that question. In a Pew survey taken last year, most Americans aged 18 to 29, unlike their elders, said Edward Snowden’s leaks of classified information about U.S. surveillance programs served the public interest.
A similar pattern holds across Europe. In four Western European countries surveyed by Pew this past spring—France, Spain, Germany, and the United Kingdom—nearly 60 percent of respondents aged 30 or older said they were very concerned about Islamic extremism in their respective countries. Among respondents aged 18 to 29, fewer than 40 percent expressed such concern.
If you’re one of the millions of young people who enjoyed this period of relative comfort, I’m sorry to tell you that it’s coming to an end. If Madrid, London, or Mumbai didn’t wake you up, Paris should. In the last week, three major terrorist attacks—not just in France, but in Lebanon and against a Russian airliner in Egypt—have killed more than 400 people. ISIS has claimed responsibility for all three massacres. A year ago, you could have said that the terrorists who wanted to hit the West couldn’t pull it off, or that those who could pull it off it didn’t have the ambition. You can’t say that anymore.
It’s tempting to argue that Paris is just blowback, and that if France and other countries stop hitting ISIS in Syria and Iraq, ISIS will stop hitting back. But that doesn’t square with ISIS’s statement of responsibility for the deaths in Paris. The statement says the assailants were “targeting the capital of prostitution and obscenity.” It celebrates the carnage at “the Bataclan Conference Center, where hundreds of apostates had gathered in a profligate prostitution party.” It praises the killers for blowing themselves up “in the gatherings of the disbelievers.” The authors of this statement, and people who think like them, won’t leave you alone. They’re at war with your way of life.
If you grew up watching thousands of Americans die in Iraq, along with many thousands of Iraqis, it’s easy to say that the Iraq war was a mistake. But Iraq isn’t the only mistake you ought to consider. Tony Blair, the former British prime minister who helped lead the Iraq invasion, points out that limited intervention and non-intervention have also turned out badly:
ISIS actually came to prominence from the base in Syria and not in Iraq. … We’ve tried intervention and putting down troops in Iraq. We’ve tried intervention without putting in troops in Libya. And we’ve tried no intervention at all but demanding regime change in Syria. It’s not clear to me that even if our policy [in Iraq] did not work, subsequent policies have worked better.
He’s right. In a world full of religious violence and terrorism, you’ll have to choose among some bad options. You might have to accept unsavory partners, such as Russia and Iran. You might have to send American troops abroad. You might have to join the fight yourself. And you’ll probably have to accept some degree of mass surveillance. It takes roughly 25 people to track every potential bad guy. France can’t field enough domestic officers to monitor thousands of possible plotters. Neither can we.
It’s equally tempting to throw up your hands and conclude that we ought to treat every Muslim or Syrian refugee as a threat. That’s what we’re hearing today from French right-wing leader Marine Le Pen and from U.S. presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. But that’s a cop-out, too. In its statement on Friday’s attacks, ISIS called Paris “the carrier of the banner of the Cross.” It accused the French government of “fighting Islam in France and striking the Muslims in the land of the Caliphate.” ISIS, like al-Qaida, wants a religious war so it can recruit more Muslims. Don’t play along.
For those of us living stateside, the last 14 years have been pretty easy. Those days are over. The people who hit Paris will try to hit us here, and they just proved they can do it. “It is difficult to understand such things, done by human beings,” Pope Francis says of the horror in Paris. But human beings have always done such things. And they’re not going to stop now.