All reasonable people know what the proper, immediate response should be to the events in Paris last night. We respect the victims by concentrating purely on them and not seeing the attacks as confirmation of our own narratives about what is going on in the Middle East and Europe.
These were young people at a rock concert, people on the fringes of a football match, diners finishing the week with friends and family, until maniacs bearing bombs and firing guns turned up in their midst. This was Paris, wonderful Paris, which Westerners associate with love, literature, art, food and pleasure, turned once again into a murderous madhouse. We supposedly honour those who died, by holding up candles and talking about our determination that the life we love will go on as normal in a few days time.
I’m sorry, it is not good enough, this modern Western response to such disasters. Everywhere you look on social media the Twitter police are on patrol, highlighting insensitive or provocative tweets, warning people not to make any political points at such a time. Don’t mention the insecurity of Western Europe’s borders. Don’t mention the connection with Islam, or the rise of a perverted Islamist creed. Don’t mention Syria.
But if our response is not political at a time like this, when terrorists are on our doorsteps trying to kill us, when should it be? What is a suitable gap between the Paris attack and the time when we can in a free society say what we think it meant? Did Londoners have a similar cooling off period after the first and then the worst nights of the Blitz? No.
Seventy five years later, this time there is widespread reluctance to face what we are up against, because the implications are deeply troubling and challenge our preconceptions. We want it to go away. It won’t.
Simon Kuper of the FT captured this perfectly in his brilliant despatch from Paris last night. He was at the Stade de France and lives near the music venue that was hit. Once he had checked his children and babysitter were okay, he wrote a piece in which he admitted that the latest attacks have shaken and possibly broken his view of Paris as a safe space, a multicultural haven, in which to raise a family.
Kuper said that he refuses to see this as a clash of civilisations. It is a few thousand jihadists, he said.
Well, there is an obvious problem with that view. Of course it is not a clash of civilisations. We are a civilisation, they are not. Western civilisation – democracy, free speech, free association, the rule of law, prosperity – is under attack by barbarians, from an Islamist movement that has tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of advocates, with possibly many more quiet sympathisers. ISIS has what it terms a state in which millions live, many reluctantly of course. Outside that territory, across the top of Africa and embedded in Western cities, are significant numbers of youths who admire ISIS or other groups with similar views. And the borders between these places is porous. Those who feel insecure about this are being rational. The West is not secure. Our borders are porous.
Don’t mention this. Don’t mention the borders, it is said, because it stigmatises the vast majority of peaceful refugees, even though it does no such thing. There are people in our midst who hate us enough to kill us or give succour and tacit support to terrorists. Public concern about adding any more people who could harbour those views or grow to be anti-Western is justified. It is a practical and realistic fear. Even if it turned out to be a tiny minority of the millions on their way, it would be too many. If you see this as somehow extreme you need to get out more.
At the risk of being accused of insensitivity, rather than writing about how heartbroken we all are (I certainly am) by events in Paris, here is an assessment in seven points of the political and strategic implications of these latest attacks.
1) The European Union and its relaxed approach to borders is in trouble, and it is possibly a terminal situation. This is not Eurosceptic wish-fulfilment. There is an argument for saying that the answer is much more Europe, with a combined effort on the southern frontier to control access. Or for the restoration of proper nation state borders. Whatever the decision, as Anne Applebaum wrote for Slate recently: the EU either finds a way to make citizens secure or it will fail.
2) A bunch of Islamist fascists called ISIS is out to destroy us. Just because they are not fighting from a conventional nation state does not make it less of a threat; it just makes responding more difficult. There is no hiding though because there is nothing they want we can reasonably give them. They will keep doing it and we fight back – through our intelligence agencies and when we can against their command structures in the Middle East – or it will only be worse in the end and the attacks will keep coming. There is no “dialogue” or peace settlement to be had with nihilsts, only defeat or a push for victory. Think we can’t be defeated? Of course we can, it is already a serious defeat when our children are given nightmares about terrorists and our cities feel unsafe because people at concerts are murdered.
3) David Cameron was right on the migration crisis when he recommended the British approach of dealing with the problem on the ground, rather than saying “welcome all” as Angela Merkel did. This is why the Brits have spent so much on relief in the countries next to Syria. Surely it makes sense to avoid where possible emptying the region of its middle classes and aspirational citizens? The Merkel approach, much praised at the time and now proving unpopular in Germany and Sweden, involves testing Western democratic will to destruction.
4) The populist right and far right are on the rise in the EU. Mainstream parties either come up with an effective response to the crisis or the vacuum will be filled by people with unpleasant views prescribing dangerous remedies.
5) The legacy of Iraq and Afghanistan has been misunderstood in a way that hampers the proper development of a response to current developments. They were disastrously managed campaigns. But some historical perspective is needed. Although the West messed up the first stages of its response to the fascists and Nazis in the late 1930s and early 1940s, that does not mean we gave up or indulged in self-hatred. Policymakers such as Alanbrooke regrouped and recalibrated their approach. They were losing and decided not to accept it. This time, we are going to have to get beyond the notion that because Iraq was a failure, we can never do anything else again. We bomb ISIS in Iraq but not Syria. This makes no sense.
6) A deal with Russia? Difficult this, but nowhere near as difficult as it was in the 1940s when Stalin was first our enemy because of his pact with Hitler and then our friend and ally after Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion. ISIS, it seems, is killing people in Western cities and blowing up Russians flying back from holiday in Egypt. There is common cause. Those of us who are anti-Putin are going to have to move a fair bit.
7) Cutting back so sharply on defence and policing, as the Tories are doing in the UK, may well become deeply unpopular, and soon.