Confidence, resilience, determination: the necessary response to the Paris attacks

Confidence, resilience, determination: the necessary response to the Paris attacks


It is time to reaffirm and protect Europe’s values

The first duty of the state is to protect its citizens. In that duty, France failed yesterday, as all states do from time to time because that duty can never be held to be absolute. It is impossible to protect against every threat every time, and any attempt to do so would impinge so heavily on other rights and values that it would in itself be an attack on the citizens. Yet the French state still failed, grossly.

It could have been still worse. The suicide bombers at the Stade de France could have killed far more had they detonated their bombs while the crowd was leaving the stadium. Why they didn’t, we’ll probably never know. We should be thankful for small mercies at a time like this.

But while we must pause to remember the lives stolen by the terrorists, both in deaths yesterday and in futures immeasurably altered, governments and nations must also think about how to respond. There will be voices stating that the best response is to carry on as normal; that the aim of terrorism is to affect a change in behaviour, both from the people and from their leaders, and so the only legitimate response is not to allow that to happen. Those voices have a point but of itself their case is far too passive.

The attacks are an assault not just on people but on a way of life. The response must be in kind. As with any military action, the West’s core values must be defended and promoted; victory can only come when the assault on them from those who would expunge the liberty that shines pre-eminently in France’s ancient mission statement is vanquished.

One casualty of this war – and it is a war, as France’s former PM and potential presidential candidate, Francois Fillon has said – must be cultural relativism. The West’s values of liberty, of freedom of speech, thought and association, of secularity, of democracy are innately superior to any alternatives. We must not be afraid of saying so. To be afraid, either out of intimidation from those who would destroy them or from a cringing fear of causing offence, is halfway to losing them. That those values are not universally applicable in a practical sense is beside the point: it is not the West’s fault that not every country in the world is mature and civilized enough to handle them. Nor is it racist to say so: no truth ever is.

Simply reaffirming that is a start. It renews confidence in what we stand for. That for all the differences between Cameron and Corbyn, or unionists and nationalists in Scotland, or even between the DUP and Sinn Fein, we recognise a common basic framework for society; a framework that while not perfect and is in places contradictory, is still better than anything else.

But reaffirming it is not enough: warm words butter no parsnips. Nor is continuing to live out those values; continuing to speak out, to socialise at cafes, to go to football matches and concerts and the like. The West – and the U.S., Britain and France in particular – need to sort out their objectives in relation to Islamic terrorism and the Middle East, and then work from there to a strategy to deliver those objectives, and to the practical policies and resources necessary. At the moment, they are simply poking the hornets’ nest. One option is to withdraw away, in the hope that the terrorists will leave us alone, despite the knowledge that they despise us. The other is to deal with them properly. But as the West doesn’t have the capacity or will to do it directly then the only option is to work through, and in support of, middle men – and the only one available in Syria is Assad. A brutal dictatorship is better than either chaos or a militant and crusading theocracy. Supporting dictators has a long and ignoble history but in this case his primary interests mesh with ours and that is enough given the lack of alternatives. However, if the U.S. is not prepared to take that action then Britain and France, in the front line against attacks like this, must act with Russia instead to the same end.

Then there is the problem in Europe. Germany alone expects (or expected – this was before yesterday’s attacks) almost a million migrants to arrive in the last quarter of the year alone. These were people let into the continent, unchecked and largely unhindered, mostly from areas where crusading Islamists are active. The risks were self-evident even before Paris. Marine le Pen has no need to say ‘I told you so’. Yet still they come and still they will continue to unless the policy changes. So the policy must change, up to and including forced deportations if necessary, though whether Germany, with all its historic baggage, is prepared to go that far remains to be seen: after all, Germany isn’t the one under attack.

There will be more, much more, that needs to be done and the joy of living in a democracy is that we can and should debate vigorously what those actions are. France too has to engage in such a debate, not just in the heat of the aftermath of the attacks but in the 18 months through to the presidential and parliamentary elections in Spring 2017. For that presidential election, Le Pen is already polling about 30% of the first round vote and outpolls Hollande in a head-to-head second round (though little second-round polling seems to have happened for months). The mainstream politicians must act now, and act decisively. If they do not, they too, and what they claim to stand for, will be casualties.

David Herdson

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