There is no question to which the answer is to wander round killing people. It takes a few words or keystrokes for any right thinking person to condemn the killings in Paris today. But that really doesn’t take us very far.
It is impossible to stop evil from happening. Simple low tech attacks by individuals, a kind of DIY terrorism, cannot always be pre-empted. If you try to do so universally, you will end up even further down the line we have gone down in the UK, where people are continually arrested and harassed who have no connection to terrorism at all, often for bragging on websites. These non-existent foiled terrorist plots are a risible feature of British politics nowadays. Every now and then one hits the headlines, like the arrests just before Remembrance Day. Their defining characteristic is that none of those arrested have any means of terrorism – 99% of those arrested for terrorism in the UK in the last decade – possessed no weapon and no viable explosive device.
In fact the only terrorist in the last year convicted in the UK, who possessed an actual bomb – a very viable explosive device indeed, was not charged with terrorism. He was a fascist named Ryan McGee who had a swastika on his wall and hated Muslims. Hundreds of Muslims with no weapons are locked up for terrorism. A fanatical anti-Muslim with a bomb is by definition not a terrorist.
I am assuming that the narrative that Charlie Hebdo was attacked by Islamists is correct, though that remains to be proved. For argument, let us assume the official narrative is true and the killings were by Muslims outraged at the magazine’s depictions of the Prophet Mohammed.
It is essential to free speech that it includes the freedom to offend. That must include the freedom to offend religious belief. Without such freedoms, the values of societies would freeze. Much social progress has caused real anguish and offence to some people. To have stopped Charlie Hebdo by law would have been wrong. To stop them by bullets is beyond any mitigation.
But that doesn’t make the unfortunate deceased heroes, and President Hollande was wrong to characterise them as such. Being murdered does not make you a hero. And being offensive is not necessarily noble. People who are persistently and vociferously offensive are often neither noble nor well-motivated. Much of Charlie Hebdo‘s taunting of Muslims was really unpleasant. That they also had Christian and other targets did not make this any better. It is not Private Eye – it is a magazine with a much nastier edge. I defend the right of Charlie Hebdo to publish whatever it wants. But once the shock dies off, I do hope a more realistic assessment of whether Charlie Hebdo was entirely admirable or not may be possible. This in no way excuses the dreadful murders.
The ability to say things that offend is an important attribute of a free society. Richard Dawkins may offend believers. Peter Tatchell may offend homophobes. Pussy Riot offended Putin and the Orthodox Church. This must not be stopped.
But that must cut both ways. Abu Qatada broke no British laws in his lengthy stay in the UK, but was demonised for things he said (or even things newspapers invented he had said). Most of the French who are today in solidarity for freedom of expression, are against people being able to express themselves freely in what they wear. The security industry who are all over TV today want to respond to this attack on freedom of expression by more controls on the internet!
I condemn, you condemn, we all condemn, and so we should. But the amount of nuanced thought in the mainstream media is almost non-existent. What will now happen is that conservative commentators will rip individual phrases from this article and tweet them to show I support terrorism. The lack of nuanced thought is a reflection of a general atmosphere of anti-intellectualism which has poisoned public life in modern western society.