Today, and on Saturday, it happened a year ago. In some ways it wasn’t all that new, nor unexpected — jihadist terrorist attacks have happened all over Europe with increasing frequency for the last 10-15 years, and several lower key attempts had been made to silence Charlie Hebdo. In fact, it remains scandalous that they weren’t protected better — the attack on their offices could have been prevented.
Anyway, it seems like a watershed in Europe, creating a “before and after” in many people’s minds. The even more horrible attack in Paris on 13 November, while certainly shocking, only confirmed that everyone is at risk, not only cartoonists or Jews. Beyond that, there is a creeping, dangerous sense of “business as usual.” Probably because that is what it has become to us. Jihadist terrorism is surely here to stay for the foreseeable future, because its root causes are not going to disappear any time soon. And sadly, the influx of refugees from various Muslim majority countries probably isn’t going to help that particular problem. While we should clearly be doing more to help refugees — it is the only right thing to do — the challenges of integration are hard to deny, just like the prospects of peace in the Middle East and Afghanistan remain depressingly bleak.
Many left-wing commentators seem to want to downplay the dangers of the situation, and while this is understandable given the rise in atavistic populism, Islamophobia, and at times ill-considered warmongering in the West, it also denies a pertinent reality that needs addressing. Jihadist terror is a threat to our open societies, even if the damage individual terrorists are able to inflict is generally limited, because our societies rely on trust to survive. Terrorism is an extreme form of the so-called heckler’s veto, in which a loud individual or small group disrupts, in some cases permanently, the free expression of others. It is designed to erode trust between individuals and to undermine the feeling of community that is so vital to us.
The introduction of draconian anti-terrorist laws in response, including such measures as ultra-rapid processing of suspects, warrantless surveillance, and potentially the stripping of nationality for dual-nationality citizens, threaten us all in that, if allowed to take hold, they will inevitably transform our societies into closed, polarised and ultimately repressive ones. This is already happening, and at an alarmingly accelerated pace since 7 and 9 January 2015, which is another reason the events on those days feel like a turning point.
Some of these measures are understandable, especially when applied in selected and particularly egregious cases, and it is naive to think that intolerance of the kind espoused by jiahids can be fought solely with tolerance. However, if we are to prevent the proliferation of terrorism and other politically or religiously motivated violence, there are certain core values that we need to uphold, not just for the afflicted (however we identify them), but for every person involved. It will not do to continue to encourage the formation of parallel societies and the neglect of minorities within the minorities that is often the result of well-intentioned multiculturalism, nor will it do hypocritically to deny rights to certain individuals because we consider them beyond the pale. The rights of the individual as defined in such foundational documents as 1789 French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Bill of Rights amended to the United States Constitution in 1791 remain the best guide we have to achieving greater mutual understanding, respect and community. And yes, this includes unfettered freedom of expression and the abolishment of inevitably fuzzy and potentially oppressive notions of hate speech, not to mention so-called ‘blasphemy’.
In the meantime, we would do well to remember that institutions like Charlie Hebdo, whatever we might think of their individual editorial decisions are the white blood cells of our societies, and that our minorities are essential to maintaining the oxygen levels of their vascular circulation. The events of 7 and 9 January and what has followed are stark indicators that we might be forgetting this. Increase the peace.