Hari Kunzru, the Guardian, January 2015.
Over the past couple of days one topic has dominated the media. The horrific attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, in which 12 people were killed. As police hunted the perpetrators across Paris, the situation escalated, culminating in the breaking up by police of two sieges and a final death toll of 17.
The horrific attacks, allegedly committed by Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, two Parisian brothers with connections to radical Islamist groups, have sparked sympathy and outrage in France and elsewhere. People have rallied in support of the victims. The hashtag #JeSuisCharlie (I am Charlie) has been dominating Twitter and demonstration placards for days. Sadly, the attacks have also resulted in a surge of anti-Islamic sentiment and racism. Some people have taken what has happened in Paris as an opportunity to further their own agendas, none of which have much to do with equality, liberalism, tolerance, rights or liberties.
I wasn’t sure whether to write about this, to, as Kari Kunzru puts it, “add to the pile of hopeful platitudes, lofty sentiments about liberty, calls for solidarity and compassion and moderation.”
The reason I did choose to write this is that I feel that another voice contradicting those reactions and inflammatory statements that have nothing to do with solidarity or compassion at least won’t do any harm.
It is indeed fatiguing and depressing to witness how anti-Islamists, anti-immigrationists and right-wingers in France and elsewhere (like Pegida in Germany and UKIP leader Nigel Farage in the UK) are using the attack on Charlie Hebdo to construe crimes likes this one as “proof of the significant threat posed by Islamists and the extent to which mainstream parties have tried to downplay the dangers.”
It is outrageous to instrumentalise these attacks to make political statements, as Germany’s latest “upstart party Alternative for Germany, or AfD,” is doing by saying, for example, “that immigrants should be let in based on cultural compatibility and not just economic grounds.”
However, equally depressing and dismaying are calls from members of the establishment, who may not be as easy and convenient to condemn, and who have lost no time chiming in, repeating claims that were old and worn-out before the attacks and which seem misplaced and ill-timed now.
In Germany, members of Angela Merkel’s CDU are once again calling for a review of mass data retention which was ruled unconstitutional in March 2010, irrespective of the fact that data retention in France did nothing to prevent the attacks on Charlie Hebdo.
In the UK, the Sun newspaper has gone as far as to demand that our “jump[ing] up and down about civil liberties… has to stop” and that “[w]e have to recognise that the greatest civil liberty of all is staying alive.”
Meanwhile, MI5 chief Andrew Parker has “called for new powers to help fight Islamist extremism, warning of a dangerous imbalance between increasing numbers of terrorist plots against the UK and a drop in the capabilities of intelligence services to snoop on communications.” He stressed once again the “lethal threat from Islamist extremists,” claiming that “more than 20 terrorist plots [were] either directed or provoked by extremist groups in Syria” against western targets in the last 14 months”, four of which he said were aimed at Britain and would have “certainly” resulted in deaths. While offering no concrete evidence to substantiate these claims, he was as quick to subordinate privacy to national security: “I don’t want a situation where privacy is so… sacrosanct that terrorists can confidently operate from behind those walls without fear of detection.” Just as the Sun was quick to subordinate civil liberties to security while itself conceding that “we can never be completely safe.”
It almost seems as if in the emotional aftermath of the attacks securocrats were hoping that we forget – or were themselves forgetting – that states like the UK and the US have
cracked and tightened for a decade and a half and all we have to show for it is a bloated, unaccountable security state that is eroding the cherished freedoms we claim to be so eager to protect”
without much success in keeping us safe. More than that, it seems that we live in increasingly xenophobic societies with no more security to show for the increasing number of calls to exclude those who suffer just as much from the acts of a very few as the rest of us.
After 9/11, [d]emocratic governments lurched towards authoritarianism. Almost willingly, it seemed, governments tore up many of the central tenets of their liberties. In the more belligerent states – the US and Britain – habeas corpus, private communication, legal process and even freedom of speech were curtailed or jeopardised.
In the aftermath of the horrific incidents in Paris, it seems that some people are eager to do the same. Calls like the ones by Parker and the Sun are being echoed far and wide and with bizarre proportions. One of the most sickening came from the NY Post which demanded that “the city [of New York] should revisit its decision to dismantle the NYPD’s “Muslim Mapping” intelligence program”, claiming that “[t]he program was designed to provide exactly the kind of intelligence that would have been useful to police in Paris once they identified their three suspects in Wednesday’s terror attack.”
“Muslim Mapping”- the name itself should make us shudder, as it gives away the true purpose of such a programme: the religious profiling of a large, heterogeneous group of people who all somehow happen to identify as Muslim but who have as little in common as individuals in any other large heterogeneous group of people who just happen to identify as British or German or French. Muslims all being lumped together and, if not being held responsible, then at least placed under general suspicion because of the actions of a few – that is racism, pure and simple or perhaps the more appropriate term would be “religionism” if it existed. We saw in Germany in the 1930 and 1940s exactly where that kind of thing can lead.
In response to the attacks in France, Robert Badinter, a former French justice minister said that
[t]he attack on Charlie Hebdo “is not only a crime, it is a trap.
A trap that will cause some people to confuse a vast majority of people with a few. It is the perpetrators that are to blame here. Yet many are quick to extend the blame, or defer it to third parties. In trying to answer the question of why this was allowed to happen, they come up with the same outrageous and frankly ridiculous suggestions that have been going round for years. It is this obvious repetitiveness, this inability or perhaps refusal to stop for a moment and consider what the real causes of the problem may be – and not just the problem of terrorism but of extremism of any kind – that is so depressing. Clearly, whatever we have been trying so far to contain these threats, both of terrorism and right-wing extremism alike, has been unsuccessful. To use this attack to, once again, make the same suggestions, to blame the same people, and to further political agendas, is ignorant, thoughtless and deceitful.
And some of it is tiresome and sickening in its sheer ridiculousness. Take Rupert Murdoch, who tweeted that all Muslims “must be held responsible” for attacks like the one in Paris “until they recognise and destroy their growing jihadist cancer”. Thankfully, J.K. Rowling immediately jumped in with a quick-witted response. Or journalists in the German Rheinische Post and Bild who went so far as to suggest that Edward Snowden is somehow responsible for what happened in Paris, because his revelations revealed operative details, and because his supporters haven’t been taking seriously warnings from the securocrats that Snowden’s revelations have diminished their ability to protect us. Because we haven’t had an attack like this one in Europe the wake of Snowden, the argument goes. Because we didn’t believe in the threat.
Bluntly speaking, these claims are not only far-fetched, they are nonsense, made by people looking for someone to blame in all the wrong places.
No one disputes that there is a terror threat. We witnessed the reality of that threat in New York in 2001, in London in 2005, in Boston in 2013 and recently in Syndey and Ottawa. What we have also seen, however, is that the surveillance apparatus implemented over the past decades is ineffective. These attacks were allowed to happen in spite of it. To suggest that Edward Snowden – or by extension the people fighting to protect our civil liberties – are somehow directly responsible for what happened in Paris is to suggest that, in moments of despair, totalitarianism – a surrender of our civil liberties – is worthy of consideration. It isn’t.
As David Davis MP (UK) told Forbes:
France has got the most intrusive [surveillance laws] of any country. That hasn’t protected it.
What is more, the two brothers who attacked Charlie Hebdo had, according to the Guardian and the Independent been on the US terrorism watchlist for years, considered either “a low risk “has-been” or no threat at all. Therein lies the problem: It is doubtful that the Charlie Hebdo attackers had the kind of cryptographic know-how to protect themselves from the surveillance apparatus, had it trained its full, substantial power on them. Had they, in short, been considered threatening enough to be worthy of such attention. The problem is not a lack of surveillance, it is a lack of effectiveness, a lack of judgement. In the vast haystack created by mass data retention, the needle, it seems, is easily lost. To instrumentalise attacks like this one to demand greater powers of surveillance is disingenuous. It is also in bad taste.
There can never be any excuse for heinous crimes like the one committed against Charlie Hebdo. However, as Jakob Augstein argues in Germany’s Der Spiegel, if we allow the horror at these attacks to overwhelm us, if we allow our values, our rights and liberties to be lost in the face of it, terrorism will truly triumph. The recent CIA torture report stands as a reminder of that. Politicians, citizens, law enforcement professionals, journalists – none of us must be “goad[ed]… to illiberal actions”. As Simon Jenkins writes:
Only weakened and failing states treat these crimes as acts of war…summoning up ever darker arts of civil control, now even the crudities of revived torture.
And only weakened and failing societies and individuals treat these crimes as a justification to blame and exclude others.
Some Muslims are Islamist terrorists but that cannot be construed to mean that all Muslims should be barred from our countries. Some people are trying to do us harm, conducting their communications through secret channels but that cannot be construed to mean that everyone has to be surveilled. The actions of a few should never be taken as justification for actions against a majority of people who have nothing in common with those perpetrating acts of crime and terror. Here is one thing most of us have in common: we are peaceful people trying to live our lives as best we can. We have not been convicted of any crime. Hence, we should not be made into suspects. Attacks like the one on Charlie Hebdo will not be prevented by lumping any of us in together, no matter who is doing the lumping, to what end or at whose expense. We must take care not to be conned into believing that if only we exclude enough people, if only we wall ourselves off enough, if only we sacrifice enough of our rights, our liberties and liberalism, we will be safe.
Amongst other things, the fearless editors and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo relentlessly supported free speech, promoting
They were irreverent of anyone acting in opposition to these values. They strove to make us “laugh and think”,
laugh at the extremists — every extremist… extremist thoughts and acts we cannot accept.
Likewise, we cannot, we must, not accept that any extremist – religious or otherwise – uses this tragedy to further their agenda and poison our thinking.