After the deaths of at least 129 people in Paris at the hands of ISIS, with many more wounded, and President Hollande's announcement of war with ISIS - an announcement followed up by bombing raids of the ISIS capital of Raqqa - the reactions of some quarters were depressingly predictable, from the extremism of the far-right, to outright denialism from sections of the Left and the "anti-war" movement. What should be clear, however, is that we need to have difficult conversations about what must be done to defeat ISIS, and that doing nothing is not an option.
To begin with the immediate aftermath of the attacks, what is remarkable is how the people of Paris refused to be intimidated. As the Stade de France was evacuated in the wake of a bombing outside the stadium, the scene was not one of mass panic but instead one of an orderly exit, with people filmed singing the National Anthem as they left. Similarly, many people in Paris used the hashtag Porte Ouverte (open doors) to offer their homes as shelter to strangers in the aftermath of the attacks. Moreover, the French also managed to largely prevent the far-right from politicising the tragedy, with far-right demonstrators chased away from vigils in memory of the attack.
The admirable reaction of the majority of the French people has not been replicated in other parts of the Western world. While the demonstrations of the far-right in France were sadly predictable (and fortunately not given widespread media coverage and the oxygen of publicity they claim), so too were parts of the reaction of the far left and "anti-war" movement - which were surely even more shocking given the sheer horror of the attacks. Before the bodies had gone cold, American ultra-"liberal" media outlet Salon blamed the attack on right-wing rhetoric. Perhaps more shockingly still, Stop the War Coalition here in the UK published (and then deleted) a piece effectively arguing that France was receiving her dues for military interventionism in the attack, straight after the attack, in a shocking display of blaming the victims for the attack rather than the terrorists who gunned them down. Such a reaction was both shocking and unsurprising at the same time, given that Charb had been called a "racist asshole" no sooner than his body hit the ground in January, and Stop the War's own stance on Charlie Hebdo was that the most surprising thing about the attack was that it didn't happen sooner given the "provocation" of extremists in the West. Evidently, the idea that terrorists themselves are autonomous moral agents, and therefore completely responsible for their own decisions to gun down civilians (as opposed to that responsibility somehow resting with the French people) has not quite penetrated certain sectors of society, and this should appal us as a society.
While these reactions to terrorism from the "anti-war" movement and far left are by now standard-issue, though more shocking given the nature and scale of the attacks, the same cannot be said for the reaction to the media coverage itself, and Facebook's decision to offer French flag filters to the thousands throughout the world who wanted to show solidarity with the French people, the survivors, and the families of the victims. The media was criticised for allegedly not covering the lethal bombings in Beirut prior to the Paris attacks an allegation which is factually incorrect in the first instance; the bombings were covered by many news outlets including CNN and the Economist, with many articles published prior to the Paris attacks. The criticism of Facebook's decision to use the Mark Safe tool for only the Paris attacks, and for there to be no parallel filter for solidarity with Beirut, on the other hand, is perhaps more legitimate (though Facebook had until Paris only used the Mark Safe feature for natural disasters). What surely isn't, on the other hand, is the criticism and slander that has been levelled in some quarters against the people themselves choosing to express solidarity with France.
It was argued by some detractors of Facebook's Tricolore filter that it was wrong in the first instance for people to feel more deeply affected by the Paris attacks than the bombings in Beirut. Frankly, it's a completely natural response for people to feel more deeply affected when atrocities like this occur in communities closer to them. I have several friends who were in Paris on the night of the attack, and they thankfully were marked safe on Facebook; I'm sure many others, on the other hand, were not so fortunate and had friends killed or wounded. Deep reactions to such a horrific - and thankfully-exceptional - attack on our doorstep, in a city many of us know and in which many of us have friends, do not show that we're inhuman, but rather precisely that we are, and such reactions certainly do not imply that we don't care about other attacks in any way.
Not only do such assertions impute the most disgusting level of bad faith into those sincerely mourning the tragedy, it's also interesting to note that the same elements blindly accusing people of not caring about other disasters often don't seem to care themselves until the West is attacked. Much like what Christopher Hitchens called the "body-bag peace movement" of the late 20th century did not think ill of Britain's non-intervention in Rwanda until Britain was ready to intervene in Kosovo - whereby the Rwandan Genocide became nothing but a political tool to oppose intervention in Kosovo - so too has the bombing of Beirut become - for some detractors, anyway - nothing but a political tool to accuse the West of hypocrisy, imperialism, or even racism (it was suggested on one major Oxford forum that the only reason Paris received so much attention is because the victims were white - an assertion which already ignores the diversity of the victims), and promote further doctrinaire non-intervention. Such accusations against those sympathising with Paris should be rejected out of hand.
Going forward, however, we must not be cowed by terror, and part of doing so will be being unafraid to have difficult but necessary conversations. The first of these must be about ISIS's theology. While many took to Twitter with the hashtag "Terrorism Has No Religion", this unfortunately misses the point; while it is true that terrorism doesn't have a religion, when a man shouts "Allahu Akbar" before opening fire in a French concert hall, it is naïve at the very least to say that his actions have nothing to do with religion. The idea that acknowledging that ISIS are inspired (rightly or wrongly) by religion does not entail in any way that they are representative of all Muslims, or Muslims in the West; it simply acknowledges that their doctrine is inspired by a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam that must be defeated theologically and ideologically, and the first step to doing so is recognising what exactly we're dealing with.
The second of these must be whether the Paris attacks really do change the situation regarding the proposed Snooper's Charter in any way. I respectfully submit that they do not; they did not change the argument after the murder of Lee Rigby last year, despite similar knee-jerk calls to rush it through, and indeed MI5 admitted in that it would have done nothing to prevent Drummer Rigby's death. Until we have any empirical evidence that such legislation (or an equivalent) would have lessened the chance of the attacks happening, it would be ridiculous to force such a (rightly) controversial measure through Parliament. Moreover, whatever chance that it would have had of stopping the attacks would still have to be weighed against its mass surveillance of ordinary citizens; the fact that metadata is ultimately a record of thoughts rather than anything else (as Chris Huhne pointed out to the Oxford Union, just knowing that someone had contacted Samaritans, for instance, already tells you a lot); and its massively adverse effects on data security. Moreover, I would suggest that what would be needed in preventing terror attacks is not making it even harder to find the needle in the haystack by flooding said haystack with the data of ordinary citizens, but the kind of information that can only be obtained with a warrant (such as the content of e-mails), phone-tapping and live surveillance of suspects, and the recruitment of more spies.
The third and final conversation we must have is whether to follow France into action against ISIS in Syria, and I believe that ultimately, we should. Despite what Stop the War Coalition and others say at every opportunity, ISIS's attacks are not a result of "Western foreign policy," but from a fanatical Islamist ideology. Ending the operations that are already ongoing against ISIS (and abandoning significant numbers of minorities and disagreeing Muslims to their fates) would not stop future attacks; as the Charlie Hebdo attack demonstrated only earlier this year, we are attacked in the West because we are different to them: because we live in countries where you are allowed to decide to leave the Islamic faith, practice a different religion (including different interpretations of Islam) openly, and criticise & satirise Islam, and its figures and symbols. Moreover, while the battle for hearts and minds in the West will undoubtedly be important in defeating this brand of extremism once and for all, we cannot escape the fact that ISIS itself will need to be degraded and destroyed militarily - and its leaders, fighters, and recruiters killed - in order for it to be defeated.
As we move forward, we must not give in to terror: we need to be unafraid to ask these questions, and to think calmly about what our response to the attacks should be rather than have a knee-jerk reaction. But we must also be under no illusion about what we face in ISIS, and how it will ultimately not go away purely because we might wish it to. Therefore, we must seriously consider intervention - or at the very least increased support for Kurdish forces on the ground - against ISIS precisely because ISIS's grievance is not interventionist Western foreign policy, but the very values of the West themselves.
I am grateful to Anastasia Tropsha for her assistance and proofreading