Alex Massie: We are menaced not besieged by evil

A woman views notes left near the offices at French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Picture: Getty
A woman views notes left near the offices at French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Picture: Getty
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AS WE ponder what can be done in the wake of atrocities, our response should be one of calm resolve, writes Alex Massie

I think we can say, with some certainty, that it wasn’t about the cartoons. This has been a terrible week but also a grimly revealing one.

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You knew, if you’ve ever paid attention to these things, that the blood would not be dry on the walls of Charlie Hebdo’s Parisian offices before certain oh-so-indomitable searchers for “truth” would emerge to blame this massacre on the cartoonists and journalists themselves.

Apparently, you see, staff at Charlie Hebdo had it coming. They knew the risks and they published anyway. Besides, the “root causes” go deep and it’s fanciful to suppose that even an apparently simple atrocity could have anything approximating a simple explanation.

You should certainly not make the schoolboy error of blaming it on the perpetrators. No, you should remember to observe that of course the deaths are deplorable and much to be regretted but, gosh, it’s much more complicated than that.

It is important, too, to remember that while Charlie Hebdo’s journalists are, like the “West” more generally, in some vague, if necessarily ill-defined, sense “responsible” for actions carried out notionally in response to their “provocations”, the people who actually stormed into an editorial meeting armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles are not responsible for their own actions. They, uniquely, do not have agency themselves. That they, unusually, could not help themselves, could not make their own choices. That they are, in a sense, infantile.

Yesterday’s events in Paris, however, revealed that to be a wicked nonsense.

The hostage-taking at a Jewish grocery store should make that clear. There is no excuse for this, no room for special pleas of understanding or for the need to examine “root causes” and “historical injustice” or anything else.

But if it is easy to identify the problem – a vision of Islam, held by a minority, that repudiates modernity and the values and virtues of post-Enlightenment Europe – it is very much harder to construct a response to these horrors that both satisfies our sense of who we are and does anything to make it less likely this will happen again.

That is the gloomiest thought of all. This will happen again. Perhaps in France. Perhaps in Germany. Quite plausibly in the United Kingdom.

The proximate cause next time may not be a satirical newspaper but it will be something else and the justification for murder will be just as flimsy. There is very little we can do about it.

Of course the security services will continue to monitor those suspected of holding extremist views, but there is both a limit to what MI5 and the police can do with their existing powers and a limit to the extent of the powers a liberal society can grant its security services.

Freedom of speech and expression are already, as Joyce McMillan observed in these pages yesterday, more severely limited in this country than should be considered healthy.

We like to think the pen is mightier than the sword, but, in truth, I do not know that it is.

The rules of our society – our civilisation – are relatively simple. Within certain obvious limits, you are free to live your life as you please. But that spirit of live-and-let-live is one of the things targeted this week.

This might be a clash of civilisations, to borrow Samuel Huntingdon’s famous phrase, but only one side really believes in it. That is, in part, because the other – the western, liberal side – cannot fight this kind of struggle without first betraying the very values it seeks to preserve, the values of openness and decency that make it worth defending in the first place. The very virtues that are attacked too.

This is the dismal paradox we endure. There is no sensible response to this, save reiterating a determination to hold our ground. A steadfast resolve that says we will not change, you must.

Yet the task of looking reality in the face also demands that we recognise that insisting upon such things is unlikely to work. The bomber or the shooter will not always get through, but he does not need to. He need only succeed occasionally. And he will.

Which, in turn, means we will continue to pay a price. The question then becomes how expensive a business it will be. It is a collective price, too, that is borne by us all, whether we be Christian, Jew, Muslim or of no faith at all. This is a country in which the spirit of the Blitz – “London can take it” – is still cherished as the acme of a certain dogged, phlegmatic determination and that, in the end, is liable to be the best response to this and other, future, atrocities.

This is not a cheery thought, not least since holding this line will prove a tough business. But what realistic alternative is there? We are menaced by evil but we are not besieged by it even if, this dark week in the City of Lights, it might easily seem as though we are.

In fact, we remain the fortunate ones. From Nigeria to Saudi Arabia, millions live in real fear or under real oppression. That does not lessen the horror of this week’s murders in Paris but it remains something worth remembering. Our defences are still strong enough even if they are also, all too cruelly, penetrable.

The awkward answer to the question of what is to be done is, much more frequently than anyone cares to admit, nothing very much. Nevertheless, at this time a spirit of calm resolve is liable to prove very much more useful than anything else. As Winston Churchill was fond of putting it, the proper response to setbacks and difficulty is to “keep buggering on”. With realism, certainly, but also with a small measure of hope that, in time, the storm will pass. Doubtless it will rage for some time yet but it can – and must – be weathered. I think it will be, not least because I still think we retain the capacity to see things clearly.

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