We are living in historic times. The terrorist attacks in Paris were arguably the most horrific on western soil since the London bombings in 2005. However, from an analytical perspective, the most frightening thing about these events is the reaction and what our scared electorate and political elite might do next.
Franklin D Roosevelt’s eternal words have been applicable to many scenarios since they were first uttered in the 1930s, but they are extremely relevant today:
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
The general reaction to the Paris attacks has been one of out-and-out horror. Demonstrations in France and Germany, dubbed ‘Islamaphobic’, were born entirely out of fear with people genuinely terrified about possible terror attacks in the future. In Britain, the story is similar. The “we’re next” sentiment is not only unhelpful diplomatically, it also somewhat plots our own demise. This point is of vital importance as the situation is so incredibly delicate. The more frightened an electorate becomes, the more likely it is to do something stupid. In Nazi Germany, Adolf Hitler orchestrated the Reichstag fire to cement his own position of authority and declare an end to civil liberties. More recently, George W Bush passed the Patriot’s Act, the most expansive and arguably tyrannical bill in modern US history, in the aftermath of 9/11.
Fear very quickly leads to desperation and, as history tells us, our own civil liberties could be under threat in such a time of political panic. In George Orwell’s 1984, society is kept in line by the state of perpetual warfare. In the novel, tyranny goes by unchecked and unchallenged because people are scared. It is a simple argument but it is frighteningly true and it makes our reaction to this crisis extremely important. Worse still, this universal state of panic could quickly and naturally lead to aggression, which would make the situation infinitely worse.
What happened in Paris will have repercussions all around the world and we are already seeing that in Britain. In the wake of the attacks, David Cameron said the intelligence services need new powers to store and read the contents of communications. The irony here is that the overwhelming reaction to the attacks defended freedom of speech, yet we look likely to implement policies that could impede that very freedom.
Speaking on Monday, David Cameron suggested it was unacceptable for the state not to be able to view communications in ‘extreme circumstances’ since a government’s first duty was public safety. The Liberal Democrats are among those to have raised concerns that this could lead to mobile messaging apps such WhatsApp and SnapChat being banned if the authorities cannot get access to them. Nick Clegg told BBC Radio 4 that one element of what Mr Cameron said would involve “scooping up vast amounts of information on millions of people – children, grandparents and elderly people who do nothing more offensive than visiting gardening centre websites”.
The difficulty here is finding the right balance between monitoring those who wish to do us harm and keeping tabs on the private lives of the entire population. It is understandable that the Prime Minister intends to clamp down on potential terrorists but Clegg’s point is also a good one. The Paris attacks were horrific and one of the real tragedies of our time but we must not allow that to change the values of our society. In a way it would be admitting defeat.
The war on terror stands out in the history of warfare. By name, it is war on the very idea of war and for that reason it is impossible to win. It is not war between nation states: it is war between ideologies, religions and cultures. The definition is so vague that the war on terror is, without doubt, the closest we’ve ever come to the perpetual conflict imagined by Orwell all those years ago. Nevertheless, we cannot let panic get the better of us and sacrifice the rights and values we strived to gain for so long and at such cost. Only time will tell what happens next but fear and a clampdown on civil freedoms is surely not the answer, nor would it be in the spirit of ‘Je Suis Charlie.’