When the Twin Towers were attacked in 2001, some said it would be the start of World War Three. A chorus of critics dismissed this claim as exaggerated and melodramatic: but what has unfolded before our very eyes these past years has only made those predictions seem more dire in terms of how quickly developments have unfolded. Even Pope Francis seems to have been ahead of the intellectual elite, when a few months ago he referred to "a third world war that is unfolding in chapters."
The causes, the culpability of people and ideas, are all debatable, and there is a vast amount of literature on the subject. But in the meantime, the attack in Paris has presented a much more important problem -- while we continue to discuss the nature of this ongoing conflict, the conflict has come to us. And it has found us unprepared.
The images arriving hour after hour from France are steeped in an unbelievable sense of the surreal. The perfect beauty of the streets of the capital, the majestic serenity of the never-ending fields of Northern France and the lush panoramas of champagne vineyards, that serve as backdrops to armed men, helicopters and gunshots seem as unreal as a science-fiction movie about an alien invasion.
The simile is not misplaced -- terrorism is an alien invasion, it is exactly what we thought was from another place, something unimaginable, which has materialized. That is the essence of the events in France -- the impossible has become real. And the world is beginning to realize what we have ahead of us.
Some clarifications must be made: this is not another September 11th. There could only ever be one of those, and it was a declaration of war. What we have in Paris is an escalation of the conflict which began then. It must also be stated that the attack is not terrorism, but an act of war using terrorism as a weapon. It is a distinction that may seem negligible, but that actually makes all the difference. The term "terrorism" as it has come to be commonly used, actually refers to random events; even if they are numerous and devastating. War, on the other hand, is above all a political act: it requires an ideological base which recruits soldiers, an objective which motivates them, and a strategy regarding forces, weapons, arms and plans. This war machine has organizations in every corner of the world -- it unites Isis and al Qaeda, goes from the heart of Africa to Europe, to the Middle East; it can mobilize resources in every country, from the most advanced, to the farthest ends of the earth. And Europe is not only its enemies, it is one of its makers -- without the riches, sciences and freedoms of Europe, this war would have taken a completely different course.
This is where we are now: the army which began to form in 2001 has grown and spread, it has created its base and has rallied its troops -- and now these troops are among us. This happened today in Paris, this will happen in all of our countries. To accept this reality, to admit to ourselves that after 70 years war has found us again, is not at all easy. The history of the European continent is such that today public opinion balks as any talk of tension. Often even starting such a discussion is enough to make you appear a warmonger.
Yet to deny being part of a conflict is a gross hypocrisy -- since 2001 we have been in a permanent state of war. We have, like Europe, fought in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Syria, in Lebanon and in Africa. At this time Italy is shouldering the interventions in Libya and Syria, among other nations who have played a huge part in at least one chapter of this Third World War. That these military interventions have always been limited or semi-hidden by our politicians has not definitively changed their nature.
Therefore let us say it. Let us admit it. And let's begin to think about new policies, about serious defensive interventions. Let's ask politicians to create a plan for military preparation, a clear project for security means, an idea about how to invest in this security. As for the rest, not confronting these questions over the last few years has only led us to be suffocated, has led our society to become more dominated by fear, and to be attracted to inflammatory and racist policies.
Let us not delude ourselves any longer: the attacks in Paris were the end of an era in Europe, an era dominated by cowardly politics, as shown by the protests in Paris Sunday. Let us not turn back.
This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post Italy and was translated into English.