From Paris, Lessons for Hartford

Each time I hear our presidential candidates argue over how to combat the threats of ISIS-inspired terrorism and immigrant minorities, I am reminded of how Parisians and I lived with these two problems over the last few months. And now that I am living back in Hartford, I see common themes in the French dilemma and ours in this city.

In two weeks, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter will work on a strategy to defeat ISIS with 27 of his European and Middle Eastern counterparts. That meeting in Brussels will focus on how to dislodge ISIS from territory it controls. Just as important is the threat of home-grown terrorists who draw inspiration or direct orders from fanatics abroad.

Yet we all know that France’s terrorism problem, and ours, cannot be solved by the military alone. Anyone who lived through the Paris terror attacks and France’s strongly anti-immigrant reaction to them, as my fellow college students and I did, knows that they are rooted in a phenomenon far more difficult to the fight than the plotting of radical foreigners. Six of the nine alleged perpetrators of the Paris attacks, according to French authorities, were French citizens. They lived on the outskirts of Paris, just Metro stops away from us, in areas the French call the banlieue, populated largely by people who, like these terrorists, are descendants of immigrants from France’s former colonies, particularly in North Africa.

The perpetrators of the Paris attacks are among the thousands of young people who are tempted by a radical ideology that tells them that French society is rigged against them, that they will always be outsiders, and that the only way out is violence. And now French society debates whether any of these children and grandchildren of immigrants can be trusted, whether any Muslims can be trusted, and whether they are or will ever become truly French. The president of France, Francois Hollande, has gone as far as proposing a law that could strip some of citizenship.

Sound familiar?

Hartford does not have a terrorism problem, but it does have areas of the city that are wracked by poverty, gang violence, drug dealing and abuse, and unemployment, all of which are a manifestation of the same societal failure that Parisians now grapple with. While there may not be any jihadi terrorist collaborators in Hartford recruiting people for ISIS, there are gangs who appeal to the same sense of frustration and exclusion that the residents of the banlieue feel. We have yet to solve the problem of generations of minority populations who, whether descended from African slaves or from more recent waves of immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries, have experienced decades of discrimination and have come to live in pockets of our cities that are no less socially and economically isolated than the banlieue I saw in Paris.

And just as the far-right French political leader Marine LePen is now calling for a stop to immigration, we have Donald Trump and other presidential candidates calling not only for a ban on Muslims entering the United States, but pledging to round up and expel millions of mainly Latino undocumented immigrants whom he paints, just as some of the French paint their Muslim immigrants, as never quite truly part of our society, even if some have been working and raising families here for years, in some cases decades.

To be clear, the situations in Paris and Harford do have some differences. With the exception of the San Bernadino attacks, the population in the U.S. has not yet been tempted by the jihadis’ perversion of Islam. And it does not seem likely that Harford is going to breed suicide bombers.

However, we should recognize that jihadi terrorism is just the most extreme manifestation of a large and longstanding problem that both Hartford and Paris now face. Here, many young people have been tempted instead by gangs whose argument is similar in its us vs. them message: society is rigged against you, you ‘ll never get a job, the mainstream won’t accept you, the way to succeed is through violence and breaking the law, and the world belongs to he who grabs it.

Both these ideologies are like diseases that spread violence and chaos through these communities, and must be combatted. Law enforcement is part of the solution. But the rest of us can and must do much more to change the environment that helps these groups to thrive.

First, we must believe that all our fellow citizens deserve a chance to join the mainstream, and that they can succeed.

To reduce the marginalization of Latino and other minority communities in Hartford we need more youth-focused programs and afterschool activities so that children are exposed to positive role models and find safe ways to spend their afternoons. At a time when city and state budgets are tight, Hartford’s university students could play a significant role. I personally saw the effect a college-age mentor can have when I worked with middle schools students at the Hartford Magnet Trinity College Academy on Broad Street. All three of the Hartford area universities should commit to having a majority of their students become engaged with communities in need.

A critical challenge that many people in the community face is getting a first job. Hartford businesses should launch internship and apprenticeship programs that specifically target disadvantaged young people.

The City of Hartford, for its part, should provide appropriate career counseling services similar to the kind my fellow students and I receive at our college. Since high school I have had access to adults who encouraged and believed in me, who could help with creating a resume, interview preparation, and job skills, and I have them to thank for first jobs and internships. Extending the network of those of us who live by networks to Hartford kids will at least give them the message that there is a way in, and a way up and out.

Finally, as Americans we must remind ourselves, as the French have had to do this fall and winter, that our fear and anger towards immigrant and Muslim communities is misdirected. Following the attacks in Paris, Muslims in their communities shouldered much of the blame. I was one of hundreds of college students in Paris, both French and foreign, who decried the labeling of all French Muslims as potential terrorists.

Among my fellow students at Sciences Po, where a noticeable number of students come from Muslim-majority countries, it became obvious that it made no sense to categorize my Muslim peers as potential terrorists. Yet it was impossible to ignore how strongly certain French politicians disagreed with our view. Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Front National, argued that France should shut its borders to immigrants and close radical mosques.

Both in France and in the United States, we must not give in to panic and fear of people whom we really don’t know. Instead, the citizens of Harford and its suburbs, the city’s businesses and its colleges, and the state political leadership that works here, must commit to action to combat the social and economic ills that plague both Paris and Hartford. We shouldn’t need more extreme violence to open our eyes and get us involved.

Clara Abramson, who just completed four months of study at Sciences Po in Paris, is a Public Policy and French major at Trinity College in Hartford. The abridged version of this article published in the Hartford Courant can be found here

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