You don’t need a weapon of mass destruction to ruin a city.
Well, maybe sometimes you do. You’re not getting rid of New York City without one. But some of the world’s cities are so vulnerable, so precariously perched above an abyss, that a single bloodthirsty nutjob with a rifle can bring it to its knees in a matter of minutes.
Look at Tunisia’s resort city of Sousse on the Mediterranean. Two months ago, an ISIS-inspired nutcase named Seifeddine Rezgui strolled up the beach with a Kalashnikov in his hand and murdered 38 people, most of them tourists from Britain.
The police shot him, of course. There was never going to be any other ending than that one. And before the police arrived, local Tunisians formed a protective human shield around Rezgui’s would-be foreign victims. “Kill us! Kill us, not these people!” shouted Mohamed Amine. According to survivor John Yeoman, hotel staff members charged the gunman and said, “We won’t let you through. You’ll have to go through us.”
Tunisia’s hospitality and customer service are deservedly legendary, but that was truly above and beyond. It’s how Tunisia rolls, but in the end, it doesn’t matter. Tourists are not going back.
A few still wander around here and there, but the locals are calling them ghosts. Who else lives in a ghost town but ghosts?
Hotels are laying off workers. Shops are empty and many will have to be closed. The city is reeling with feelings of guilt and anxiety. Guilt because one of their own murdered guests, the gravest possible offense against the ancient Arab code of hospitality, and anxiety because—what now? How will the city survive? How will all the laid-off workers earn a living with their industry on its back? Sousse without tourists is like Hollywood without movies and Detroit without automobile manufacturing.
Even Tunisia’s agriculture economy is crashing. Prices are down by 35 percent because the resorts don’t need to feed tourists anymore.
Rezgui’s ghoulish attack was spectacularly successful, wasn’t it? A single act of violence and—boom. Just like that, it’s all over.
Tunisians can still hang out in Sousse when they have some leisure time, but why should foreigners go there on holiday when they can go to Morocco instead? And if a couple of freakjobs shoot a bunch of tourists in Morocco, that country, too, could go into a tailspin. Why go there for a Mediterranean holiday when you could go to Spain, Malta, Corsica, or Croatia? Europeans who want to go farther afield can fly down to Key West, the Azores, or Bermuda.
When it’s stable, Tunisia is a wonderful place for Westerners. The southern half of the country is quintessentially North African while the coast is startlingly European. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say the coast is Mediterranean. With a few exceptions (Gaza, Libya, and to a lesser extent Egypt), the European and Africans sides of the Mediterranean are two halves of a coherent whole.
Only when you move inland and away from the sea do the unique characteristics of each nation-state fully assert themselves. Coastal Morocco is a lot like Spain, partly because southern Spain is a lot like Morocco. Beirut is an Arabic-speaking version of Tel Aviv. Istanbul is a Greek city inhabited by Turks while Athens is an Ottoman city where Greeks dwell. Coastal Tunisia feels like an Arabic-speaking province of France without the clash between natives and immigrants.
A French person who holidays in Sousse will feel as eerily at home as a Californian in Cabo San Lucas.
There’s a lot to love about Sousse. It’s an Arab city to emulate. If only Egyptians and Saudis and Iraqis could see this place, I thought to myself when I first got there, they’d see what’s possible in their own countries.
And that’s precisely why the likes of ISIS want to destroy it. ISIS isn’t gunning for Mecca. It is not targeting the Taliban-ruled parts of Afghanistan. It wants to swallow as much as it can, of course, but it can’t tolerate anything in the Muslim world that reminds people like me of a decadent infidel nation like France.
Thousands of Tunisians have run off to join ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Tunisians are, in fact, overrepresented in ISIS’s ranks.
Don’t get the wrong idea. It’s not because ISIS is popular in Tunisia. It’s not because Tunisians are more Islamist than people everywhere else. The democratically-elected government is composed of a staunchly secular coalition that spans the political spectrum from the socialist left to the moderate right.
Tunisia is the one Arab Spring success story. There is no chance it will voluntarily transform itself into anything resembling a Taliban state. The only Arab country less likely to rally around the ISIS flag is Lebanon, and that’s because a third of Lebanon’s people are Christians.
So if you live in Tunisia and yearn for that sort of thing, you have to go somewhere else.
Most of Tunisia’s ISIS members come from the same town anyway, a nasty place called Kasserine that I vowed to never visit again even before it became the ISIS factory that it is now.
Some countries suffer from brain drain. Their best and brightest emigrate to gentler and more prosperous lands when they can flourish. Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Egypt—these places are all suffering from spectacular levels of brain drain.
Tunisia, meanwhile, is experiencing psychopath drain.
But some of its home-grown psychopaths are sticking around, and it’s extraordinary what just a handful can do. If they blew up their home town of Kasserine, hardly anybody would notice or care, but massacring people in Sousse is like massacring people in Miami. Americans by and large aren’t familiar with Sousse because it’s far away on a strange continent, but it’s a short hop for Europeans and Arabs and is as well-known on that side of the Atlantic as Cancun is on this side.
I’ve visited Sousse three times, first with my wife, then with my friend and occasional traveling companion Sean LaFreniere, and again with my colleague Armin Rosen.
A few years ago, in the early days of Tunisia’s democracy, Sean and I had dinner at an old French restaurant near the beach. The place was packed, the food outstanding, the bill tiny. I looked around the restaurant and saw bottles of red wine atop almost every table. None of the women were covered. The mood was care-free and light, airy and full of laugher. We could have been in France, but I heard no language in that restaurant but Arabic.
You can find restaurants like that one in Jordan, but they’re almost all attached to hotels and nearly all the patrons are foreign. In Sousse, though, Sean and I were perhaps the only foreigners, not because tourists were afraid to visit back then but because we were there in the winter, during the off season.
I’ve been almost everywhere in that country more than once. It felt solid. Kick the walls if you want. They won’t buckle. It will not come apart like Syria, Iraq or Libya. It was obvious from the very beginning that, post-Arab Spring, Tunisia would not explode in civil war like Syria, rupture into fragments like Libya, or devolve into another police state like Egypt. It sure as hell wouldn’t go the way of Afghanistan. That was clear.
“If the Islamists want to Talibanize this place,” I said to Sean as he sipped from his glass of Johnny Walker at that delightful restaurant in Sousse, “they’ll have to kill half the population in order to do it.”
He froze after I said that. I didn’t ask what he was thinking at that moment, and I doubt he’d remember if I asked him—this was years ago—but he clearly felt a chill. I felt a chill, too. And I remember what I thought when I felt it: The bastards will probably try.