Editorial: Response to Paris terrorism a measure of our character

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Police forces, firefighters and rescue workers secure the area near the Bataclan concert hall in central Paris, where an attack by gunmen killed at least 100 people. | Francois Guillot/AFP/Getty Images

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We are “saddened and sickened.”

This is what Mayor Rahm Emanuel said on Friday evening, immediately upon learning of the terrorist attacks in Paris, and it is the only right first thing for any good person to say.

We are saddened, sickened and appalled. And we stand with the people of Paris and all France, just as they stood with us on Sept. 11, 2001.

We will not be cowed.

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That is what we always say next, and necessarily so — after 9/11, after the Charlie Hebdo slaughter and again now. We, the free and democratic world, will not give an inch to terrorists, and we will defeat — morally, politically, ideologically and militarily — the barbarians responsible for the Paris attacks.But what then do we say?

A person’s true character is measured by his or her words and actions in the first unfolding moments of a crisis, not after it has faded and the fears and anger have ebbed. What will our measure be?

On Friday evening, as we began writing an earlier version of this editorial, the reported death toll in Paris was more than 100 people. By Saturday night, the reported death toll was 129. By the time you read this, in print or online, the toll likely will be higher still.

Our sense of horror has only grown through the weekend. With every new report out of Paris, our thoughts and emotions shift and surge. They can hardly be contained. We want an end to what is despicable. Will we call upon the best in ourselves in this time of white heat, or will we stoop low and grow small in our fury?

When we do the first, we are at our strongest against forces of evil such as ISIS, which has now claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks. When we do the latter, we play into their hands.

In those very first hours on Friday night, even as the ambulances wailed through the streets of Paris, a man named Wolfe in Sydney, Australia, posted a comment below an online New York Times story that revealed a cool — yet compassionate — head in a crisis.

“So sorry for you people in Paris and France,” he wrote. “Be strong. The free world that counts is by your side. I can only hope that we can turn this madness around to strengthen us in keeping our democratic values up.”

Another very early commentator, identified only as NJ in New York, wrote the predictable yet still lovely “Nous sommes tous Parisiens.” We are all Parisians.

But then a third commentator, this one from Chicago, weighed in with a Tweet that said all of Islam “has a problem” and called on the United States to ban every single Muslim from entering the country.

Will this writer regret his intemperate words once the heat of the moment has cooled? We would hope. But the measure of our character is in what we say and do now.

A resident of San Francisco, in another Tweet of instant analysis, predicted with an air of satisfaction that European Union countries almost certainly now will want to turn back the tens of thousands of refugees flooding in from Syria and other Middle East countries.

To worry that terrorists might be included among the refugees, and to demand stepped-up security measures, is not irrational. It is a valid concern. On or near the body of one of the terrorists in Paris, it was reported Saturday, was found the Syrian passport of a man who has arrived in Greece as a refugee last month.

But we lean toward a more nuanced view on the matter expressed by yet another very early commentator, just hours after the Paris attacks:

“I don’t understand how seeing these murders can leave someone less sympathetic to refugees fleeing these murderers,” tweeted Ezra Klein, editor in chief of Vox.com.

The entire civilized world is infuriated and fed-up. We want nothing more than to strike back at such savagery — and we will. Every terrorist attack is a reminder of precious values to be defended at all costs.

Secure in our freedoms and sure of our values, we will prevail over barbarism — so long as we live by those values even when it is most difficult.

America stands with the people of France. All humanity stands with the people of France.

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