The Friday night attacks, apparently carried out by a well co-ordinated network of young men with uncovered faces and automatic weapons, were aimed at popular, youthful, busy places of pleasure in diverse and multiethnic neighbourhoods: A legendary concert hall hosting a U.S. independent rock band, a Cambodian restaurant in a bohemian district, and a France-Germany soccer match.
These do not appear to be symbolic targets. They are not places related to the French state, to the military, to religion or commerce or international affairs. Rather, they are targets chosen, it seems, for maximum carnage: Popular, unprotected, soft targets all on busy thoroughfares with large crowds engaged in popular Parisian evening activities.
It was, then, an attack on Paris itself. It is hard to avoid seeing it as an attack on the very spirit of modern, pluralist Paris, on the youthful libertine air that still permeates the French capital.
Even more than January's attacks on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo (around the corner from the Bataclan concert hall attacked on Friday night) and a Jewish market, the massacre was a highly planned, tactically co-ordinated effort to disrupt the peaceful order and functioning of one of the West's great cities. And, among events of its sort, it was one almost unprecedented in its cold-bloodedness.
The only recent analogue, in method and result, was the Nov. 26, 2008, terrorist attack on Mumbai, which unfolded in an eerily similar fashion, with 10 young Pakistani men firing automatic weapons on a dozen places of mass activity to kill as many innocent civilians as possible (166 died that day). Several analysts noted the tactical similarities between the events, including the lack of any apparent goal beyond body counts.
And it raised, once again, the question in the air since January: Why only Paris? Is this violence the result of an ideological virus grown from within the city (the January attackers were Parisian Frenchmen raised in foster homes), or some extension of the battles in Syria and Iraq, in which France is a participant (likewise, the January attackers claimed affiliation with an al-Qaeda branch in Iraq)?
It also provoked an unprecedented response in a country that was already under a virtual state of emergency.
No city in the Western world had been as tightly girded against a terrorist attack. Paris has been under military patrols since the terrible attack in January, and under special alert leading up to the United Nations climate-change summit in two weeks. The French security forces responded on Friday night by ordering every police and military officer into action – an extraordinary and difficult call for events whose magnitude became apparent only around midnight on Friday.
President François Hollande made the unprecedented move of closing France's borders – something that does not seem to have happened to such an extent since France became a member of the Schengen Area, the 26-country bloc that has eliminated borders since 1995. On highways between France and Germany or Belgium, the border is barely marked and there are no crossings; closing the border involves setting up police checkpoints on the highway and railway lines.
The worry, as France struggles to secure itself against whatever internal or external threats caused Friday's attacks, is that this crushing security will further quash the Parisian life that fell to bloodshed on Friday.
"We are standing, we are united," Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, declared in the early hours of Saturday morning as scores of bodies were being carried from the concert hall. "I call for the unity of all of us."
Paris residents responded in kind, but many expressed worries. "I don't think this is a clash of civilizations. I see it as a clash of a couple of thousands jihadis with a great city," the Dutch-English soccer writer Simon Kuper, a Parisian who was at the bombed soccer match, wrote on Friday. "The problem … is that it only takes a few men with guns to make a place unlivable."