It is a shocking story to wake up to. A murderous act in a beautiful city. My condolences to those close to the people who were killed, and to the people of Paris and France.
Three masked gunmen shouting “Allahu akbar!” have stormed the Paris offices of a satirical newspaper, killing 12 people, including its editor, before escaping in a car. It was France’s deadliest post-war terrorist attack.
Security forces were hunting for the gunmen who spoke flawless, unaccented French in the military-style noon-time (NZT early Thursday) attack on the weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo, located near the Bastille monument. The publication’s caricatures of the Prophet Muhammed have frequently drawn condemnation from Muslims.
President Francois Hollande called the slayings “a terrorist attack without a doubt,” and said several other attacks have been thwarted in France in recent weeks.
On Al Jazeera this morning, I saw President Obama’s live response. Some of his statements were apt, others seemed to take the opportunity to further the US agenda for its “war on terror”. He implied a justification for the extensive NSA international surveillance powers, and to offer them in support of France.
Why does it happen? Whenever a political outrage is committed, the sensible question is to ask: what does its perpetrator want? What reaction does he seek, and what does he not seek?
Twelve dead cannot go unremarked. Those journalists who confront violent intolerance, even in the supposed security of a city office, need every support. When, very rarely, they die in that cause, they must be lauded and mourned.
Those who comment through satire are peculiarly bold, more so than those who deploy argument. Ridicule is the most devastating and wounding of weapons. It reaches parts of the political and personal psyche that reason cannot touch. It is one of democracy’s most effective weapons, and the price those who wield it have to pay is sometimes as high as any other.
Today’s French terrorists want a similarly hysterical response. They want another twist in the thumbscrew of the surveillance state. They want the media to be told to back off. They want new laws, new controls, new additions to the agenda of illiberalism. They know that in most western nations, including Britain, there exists a burgeoning industry of illiberal bureaucrats with empires to build. This industry may be careful of public safety, but it is careless of the comfort and standing it offers the terrorist. There will now be cries from the security services and parliament for more powers and more surveillance.
But these acts are crimes and should be treated as such. They are for assiduous policing, at which Britain has so far been reasonably successful. They are not for constitutional deterioration.
Only weakened and failing states treat these crimes as acts of war.
That is why the most effective response is to meet terrorism on its own terms. It is to refuse to be terrified. It is not to show fear, not to overreact, not to over-publicise the aftermath. It is to treat each event as a passing accident of horror, and leave the perpetrator devoid of further satisfaction. That is the only way to defeat terrorism.