Our hearts break for Paris and the French people. For the sake of the victims and their families, our response to these latest terror attacks must be more than the standard denial and clichéd mistakes
Since awful showpiece terrorist attacks like those that tore through the heart of Paris last night are becoming a regular occurrence, it is worth reminding ourselves of the standard political response in their aftermath. It goes something like this:
Day 0: Expressions of shock, sorrow, anger and solidarity
Day +1: Insistence that now is a time for mourning, not asking difficult questions about how or why the atrocities were committed
Day +1, later: The first difficult questions are asked, particularly of the government and security services
Day +2: The intelligence services dust off their wishlist of draconian new powers, and strongly suggest that if only they already had these powers, the attack could have been avoided
Day +2, later: Some brave soul pokes their head above the parapet and tries to start a discussion about the link between unlimited multiculturalism and homegrown extremism, to near universal c0ndemnation
Day +3: The official narrative is established – “we will defeat this terror by giving our intelligence services the tools they need, and making radical or hateful speech illegal”
And so, within a week, the status quo reasserts itself. More civil liberties infringements, more free speech crackdowns, more government surveillance – and then more terror attacks, weeks or months later.
The status quo is not working. As this blog noted shortly after the Charlie Hebdo attacks:
Attempting to start a meaningful conversation about the root causes of Islamist terrorism is, apparently, highly unseemly and inappropriate so soon after an attack. And yet those who make this claim never explain why talking about the root causes of Islamist terrorism in its immediate aftermath is opportunistic and wrong, while conveniently it happens to be the perfect time for governments to demand sweeping, draconian new powers. And that is exactly what we now see.
One thing should now be absolutely clear, though apparently it needs constant restating: There can never be enough surveillance, never enough restrictions on movement, never enough laws banning hate speech to prevent a small number of determined, radicalised citizens – and likely non-citizens who have taken advantage of Europe’s loose borders – from going on the rampage and causing the kind of bloody mayhem that we now see, again, in Paris.
With the exception of the Stade de France, these were soft targets. It is simply not possible to protect every restaurant, every corner bistro or every theatre from a jihadist army of two who turn up in a car, spray innocent people with bullets and speed off to their next target. Concrete road blocks, razor wire, metal detectors and CCTV are of no use against these nimble threats.
So whatever else is said in the aftermath of these latest Paris attacks, let no one pretend that more government surveillance and more draconian crackdowns on free speech – either that of the Islamists or the Islamophobes – are the right answer. At best, these policies – favoured by the French and British governments – are a sticking plaster on an open wound, addressing the symptom but not the problem.
And that problem is the same as it was on 7 January, when Islamist gunmen stormed the offices of Charlie Hebdo, massacring journalists and shoppers at a Parisian kosher supermarket. The problem is that there are people living among us – a very small, but determinedly growing number, either citizens or recent migrants – who may hold the same passports as us and walk the same streets as us, but who feel no connection with us.
Those who propose nothing but even more security would apparently be content to live in a society where a small, segregated minority still hate us, but are thwarted in their attempts to kill us by omnipotent security services. They would be happy to live in a divided, ghettoised, multicultural dystopia, so long as the terror plots are always successfully thwarted.
Those of us who believe in the western and enlightenment values of freedom and individual liberty should not be satisfied with this goal – which is unattainable anyway, since perfect security can never be achieved. We should want a society which is open and welcoming to those who wish to come and contribute, but not credulously undiscriminating in accepting everyone. We should want a society where people feel bonds of kinship and affection which transcend racial and religious boundaries, where a healthy sense of patriotism ensures that there are common shared values which unite us all. But when patriotism and a robust defence of western values is seen as gauche, unseemly and culturally insensitive, there is no way to transmit these essential values to those who most need to receive them.
No government action taken by France in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks could likely have prevented these new attacks on Friday 13 November – simply not enough time has elapsed for any bold new government policies to have taken effect. But appallingly, neither have any bold new government policies been proposed, let alone implemented. France still struggles with the existence of economically deprived, socially isolated immigrant communities who feel no allegiance to the country where they live – people who often feel more Muslim than French. Weak to nonexistent border enforcement makes it impossible to properly who control who comes and goes.
Meanwhile, the West – and Europe in particular – is in the midst of its own identity crisis, increasingly uncomfortable defending the principles of liberal democracy, free speech and tolerance. Many would rather bury their heads in the sand and deny the existence of the problem than insist that everyone abide by certain values and standards of behaviour. Too often, a warped strain of Islam has been allowed to run side-by-side with Western culture in a dual, effectively segregated society. And the growing Western culture of victimhood only adds fuel to the jihadist fire.
As Frank Furedi wrote on the tenth anniversary of the 7/7 London bombings:
The redefinition of terrorism as an ideological competitor is linked to the decline in the self-belief of the West. Even before the events of 11 September 2001, never mind 7 July 2005, there was more than a hint of defensiveness about the ability of Western values to prevail over those of their hostile opponents. One conservative American observer gave voice to this sentiment, and concluded that ‘protecting Western culture from foreign assault requires domestic revival’. A decade before 9/11 he warned that ‘the 21st century could once again find Islam at the gates of Vienna, as immigrants or terrorists if not armies’. Today there is little evidence of a domestic revival. Indeed, Western governments are sensitive about their very limited capacity for inspiring their own publics. The problem of engaging the public and gaining its support is one of the most striking features of the post-9/11 political landscape.
[..] There are signs that, in the decade since 7/7, some sections of the British establishment have woken up to the fact that what drives homegrown jihadism is the failure of society to clarify its values and way of life. The constant calls from Cameron and others to teach British values in schools represents an indirect recognition of the absence of such values from young people’s lives. But the values that inspire must be lived; they can’t be recycled through a shopping list of good intentions. Until there is a more courageous attempt to address this problem, tragedies like the London bombings of a decade ago will always be a possibility. The real threat is not the poisonous ideology of Islamic State, but Western society’s failure to live out and stand up for the principles of liberal democracy.
As it is in Britain, so it is in France. Neither country has done enough to tackle the sense of alienation or the crisis of British / French values which make radicalisation possible.
Tim Stanley touches on these points in his moving tribute to Paris in the Telegraph following yesterday’s terror attacks:
The brutality of this attack shows that we are not dealing with an enemy that can be negotiated with, only confronted and beaten. Perhaps that confrontation will be existential. Are we doing enough to integrate everyone, enough to fight poverty, enough to eradicate prejudice? Are we confident enough about our own values to teach and promote them? Are our security measures appropriate? Do we all have to come to terms with living with permanent anti-terror measures (I hope not). And what will our society look like as a consequence of this conflict? Less free, perhaps?
Are we doing enough to integrate everyone? I don’t think that any French or British politician could say that enough is being done. Worse still, it isn’t even a top priority at the moment.
Are we confident enough about our own values? Clearly not – in many cases, we have so little confidence in our own values that we fail to insist that others (recent immigrants and segregated communities) abide by the enlightenment values which have served us so well. In fact, sometimes we make an ostentatious virtue of parading our tolerance of thoroughly anti-enlightenment values, in warped service to “multiculturalism”.
Are our security measures appropriate? Our intelligence services will walk a tightrope here, insisting that they do everything they can to keep us safe, while making clear that if we do not grant them additional powers, any future blood spilled will be on our hands.
But Tim Stanley’s final question is the most pertinent: Do we all have to come to terms with living with permanent anti-terror measures?
That question is best answered with another question: What concrete actions are we taking that might feasibly lead to the rolling back of the semi-permanent anti-terror measures and powers which are now a depressingly familiar part of life? What one single thing are we doing that might mean we need less security and less surveillance a decade from now?
The regrettable answer is that we are doing virtually nothing. The world continues to turn on its dark side, and we can reasonably look forward to a future of more random terror, more sombre presidential addresses and the familiar sight of militarised police SWAT teams crawling over our major cities. This is the new normal, and nothing we are presently doing is going to change that fact.
It is now Day +1. This time, can we break with rotten, failed convention and actually talk about root causes?
Top Image: Eiffel Tower, darkened after the 13 November attacks: Auskar Surbakti Twitter feed
Bottom Image: One World Trade Center, New York, lit in French colours: Jon Swaine Twitter feed
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It’s my hypothesis that the terrorists actually want to encourage the downfall of Western civilization through making us so fearful that we accept draconian security measures and other such erosions of our civil liberties, thereby undermining the very value system we claim to live by and proving Western civilization bankrupt.
Of course, I have nothing to prove this assertion, but…
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I think you are right, in part – if the terrorists cannot force us to all adopt their twisted interpretation of Islam then at least they can turn our countries into such surveillance state dystopias that they essentially change our lives for the worse out of fear. And who can say that they are not succeeding in their objective, right now?