On this past, particularly austere, Friday the 13th, global terror threat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant coordinated a series of four separate shootings and three different suicide bombings throughout the heart of Paris and in one of its suburbs. The attacks resulted in at least 129 fatalities, 352 injuries, a declared state of emergency and the closure of France’s borders. The terror attack, the deadliest in France since World War II, was deemed by French President Francois Hollande “an act of war” that he would avenge in a fight that “will be merciless.”
The War on Terror, even if it is not an explicitly American war on terror, has returned. But this time, the landscape is different. The American populace has seen behind the veil of the NSA and the looming threats of the security state, yet has also had to face the horror of radical jihad in real-time. Texts from hostages being kept within the Bataclan, the Parisian theater in which individuals were massacred by three terrorists -— resulting in 89 murders — were being reported by media outlets throughout the world. People who secured their safety in the city were able to check in as “safe” on Facebook. Parisians running through the streets posted updates to Twitter about where to go and where to avoid. Perhaps most inventively, Parisians were able to find safety in the homes of strangers by using #porteouverte on multiple social media channels. But this was not the new battleground that we found. These were ingenuities found in moments of mortal peril. The new turf that both the U.S. public and the enemy have found is as simple and potent as hashtags and filters.
During the attacks, ISIL wasted no time in claiming responsibility and celebrating the attacks on Twitter with an Arabic hashtag translating to “Paris burns.” Aside from the obvious insanity that these monsters could be celebrating the massacre of innocent civilians, there is the added insult that they used our own invention against us. Twitter is ours. It is a product of the democratic liberalism and celebration of free speech and expression that ISIL has so vehemently tried to decimate. ISIL hijacked our own invention.
We stepped up and fought fire with fire. We put French flag filters over our Facebook profile pictures. We Instagrammed photos of the Eiffel Tower. We cluttered our Twitter feed with #vivelefrance and #prayforParis. Despite many cultural critics claiming that these acts were either in vain, or even worse, purely vain attempts to appear sympathetic, we had to do these things. Hashtagging and posting was just as much to express our extreme sadness for the victims as it was to show ISIL that they can kill our people, but they will never kill our spirits. Certainly, we will never change our lives out of fear of men who blow themselves up for eternal salvation.
Just days after the attacks, Parisians still smoke Gauloises and drink carafes of wine outside of cafes. ISIL did not attack symbols of the government, like the Élysée Palace or Hôtel de Ville. They attacked a bar, a rock concert, a football game and a shopping center. They wanted to attack the vitality of liberal culture. They’re terrorists; they want us to retreat with fear.
Seventy million people posted dedications to Paris on Instagram within a day of the attacks. These posters included Christians, Muslims, Jews, atheists, conservatives, liberals, socialists, libertarians and everyone in between. Over 200 countries in total were represented because ISIL is not waging a war just against the West. It aims to attack and oppress people around the world who believe that individuals have a right to choose how to live their own lives. Those individuals can become, and many of them have become, a part of this fight through the equalizing power of the internet. Perhaps it is a small, effortless measure of solidarity against a global terror threat with an estimated $2 billion in funding, but those with access to social media have a moral obligation to show ISIL that they can’t hijack what belongs to liberalism and individualism, be it Twitter or simply a night out on the town.
Our countries have fought a war on terror before. It was long and arguably didn’t accomplish much. It may sound petty to say that “doing your part” includes changing Facebook profile pictures, but the battleground has changed. In the age of social media, people around the world are exposed to image after video after soundbyte of people fleeing bloodshed and running for their lives, all while these villains celebrated on our terrain. If ISIL wages war against the right to freely associate and enjoy oneself, and tries to use social media against those who created it, individualists have to do what we can to take it back. It may be a small act, but it also may be the weapon that we did not have last time.