First off, this is so obvious it shouldn’t need saying, but in such shocking times it is best to be clear about as much possible: condemn the atrocity with no equivocation whatsoever. As no one really is offering an unequivocal response, that shouldn’t need saying. But like I say, when a shock to the system this big strikes, it is best to be clear from the very start about everything.
It has been interesting reading responses from around the political media to the horrific events in Paris. It always is when something terrible happens; how one is meant to respond on a macro level is clear, but it is in the details that everyone’s idiosyncrasies shine through via extreme shock. Dan Hodges’ piece on the whole incident was interesting (Hodges usually is). He talked about how he wanted to tweet a Hebdo cartoon in solidarity but stopped himself; he suddenly felt scared for his life. Given what happened in Paris, this is a completely logical reaction, one I can well imagine having myself. This leads Dan to two conclusions: one, that in some sense, whether we like it or not, the terrorists have won for the time being. If the goal is to strike fear in journalists, enough to stop them doing something they otherwise would have, they have succeeded. Two, that the Paris atrocity proves that we need to allow greater intrusion by the authorities in regards to our civil liberties in order to prevent such events occurring in the future.
On the second point, I find it hard to agree; while even for a civil libertarian such as I it is tempting to think that perhaps we could stop things like what happened in Paris from reoccurring, if only we had the right data and monitoring in place, I’m not really convinced that’s the case. Whether we like it or not, civilised society remains open to terrorism. And horrible things such as what we saw yesterday in France happen in authoritarian regimes all the time, I hasten to remind everyone.
On the Hodges first point, I regretfully agree for the most part. As we saw post-September 11th, 2001, terrorist massacres often give rise to their intended effect for the most part. The main idea behind the World Trade Center attack was to provoke the West into a series of wars in the Middle East while fostering greater Islamophobia in the same part of the world with the hope of creating a “clash of civilisations”. On both aims, the terrorists at least partially succeeded. What we have seen in the immediate wake of the Hebdo Paris disaster has been mostly encouraging, with even the most ardent Eurosceptics in Britain declaring their solidarity with the French. But this is, sadly, probably just the calm before the storm. We are likely to see a rise in Islamophobia in the coming weeks, and in France this incident is likely to give Marine Le Pen a temporary boost. At least, we hope it will be temporary.
Back to the liberal response to the terrorist attack: liberalism suffers most, as far as ideologies go, in the face of such horror. Liberalism is built on the idea that if we treat people like grown-ups, they will act like grown-ups and as a result, childish ideology melts away and we can live together in about as much peace as we as human beings can ever expect. Also, that it is better to trade with one another than to kill one another, by default. When a belligerent, ideologically driven force that cannot be reasoned with asserts itself, liberalism usually suffers a dip in public acceptance. Fear makes people more clannish, more parochial, less willing to try and empathise with other viewpoints; all of this is anathema to liberalism.
But I say the liberal response to the Hebdo massacre is this: we genuinely do not allow ourselves to be cowed by the terrorists. We do not do what they want and become more nationalist, more fearful, more willing to cede freedom to authority. We carry on, accepting regretfully that in a free, liberal democracy, you have to be willing to face up to the fact that sometimes bad people do bad things, and that just because they do does not mean we should abandon the principle of an open, tolerant society. Not just because we shouldn’t in principle, but also because if you don’t want “the terrorists to win” then you have to avoid doing what it is they are trying to manipulate you into doing.
So do it for those who died senselessly yesterday in Paris, if for no other reason: they died working for a publication that said what it wanted to say, without fear of reprisal. To give in to terror and accept the premise that society must be less free in order to stop such things happening again is to dishonour their memory and ultimately, what they died for.