Some thoughts on the Paris attacks

I was in a hotel room just outside Reading when it happened. Watching Later with Jools Holland, a chill went down my spine when out of nowhere the pictures of singing and joviality faded out to be replaced by haunting words along the lines of ‘we’re now joining the BBC News Channel live.’ Whilst it’s not my intention in the slightest to come across as trivial, you know something very serious has taken place when a scheduled TV programme is interrupted in this way, and so it unfortunately proved here.

eiffel tower

Most readers will surely by now be familiar with the terrible events two and a half weeks ago which left 132 dead, so I won’t describe the details again here. I would however like to offer some humble reflections of my own.

  1. A rush for comment

In an increasingly ‘microwave’ age, just as we demand information in a rapid, bitesize and easy to digest fashion, we also do so for in-depth analysis. This was patently demonstrated in the social media reaction (especially via Twitter) to the atrocities in France. Why did these events happen? What were the causes? Who is to blame? What is the world going to do about it? Such questions in the wake of such barbarity are nothing new, and are utterly understandable and right. Yet, it was the sheer speed at which explanations and apparently expert commentary were offered in answer to these questions which struck me. My concern is that without allowing ourselves the requisite time to consider, analyse and evaluate whether (or not) to act we’ll promote ill conceived and knee jerk solutions that potentially make things worse; this being the case both in terms of our own understanding of such atrocities and formal responses to them. Whilst in some situations rapid reaction will be necessary, it is crucial that our policy makers don’t give into the clamour for immediacy, particularly if the response demanded will have potentially long term, unintended, and life altering consequences.

2. On our doorstep

It was telling that the day before the Paris attacks, an event of similar ferocity struck the Lebanese capital of Beirut. Yet here there were no hashtags, no national anthem played at international sporting events and no Lebanese flags covering Facebook profile pictures. If the French population are deserving of such sympathy and solidarity (and I’m not for one minute suggesting that they’re not) then why aren’t the Lebanese, the Iraqis, the Syrians, the Nigerians and the millions the world over whose lives have been scarred by terrorism? One journalist argued that their newspaper had indeed given plenty of coverage to the Beirut attack, and such an assertion wouldn’t be incorrect. Yet, to suggest that somehow the Paris and Beirut (substitute Beirut for Bamako, Aleppo or Yola) had received comparable amounts of media coverage is, I’m afraid, ludicrous. Some may retort that the differing levels of coverage only exist becausethe public demand it so. Yet, regardless of whether its the media constructing certain atrocities as ‘worse’ than others, or whether the public simply care ‘more’ about French attacks than those further away (I happen to think it’s a mixture of both) the bigger question iswhy the Paris attacks gained such greater levels of coverage.

I believe there may be at least one key reason — proximity, both in ageographical and cultural sense. In regard to the former, Paris is so much closer to us than Beirut, Yola or Bamako and therefore somehow feels so much more real to us. In terms of the latter, the attacks on Paris were not only perceived as an attack on French people but also an attack on the ‘sacred’ collective Western ideas of democracy, modernity and freedom. Perhaps it is because other ‘far off’ nations do not (apparently) share these ideals that we find it harder to feel outraged (or as outraged) when news of terrorist atrocities in Lebanon, Mali or Nigeria come to our attention. In other words, France is much more likely to be seen as a nation ‘like us’, hence why a terrorist attack here is deemed indeterminably more horrific than it would be in the Middle East, Asia or Africa. Indeed, there is a collectively shared notion that terrorism is something that normally happens ‘over there’ where ‘that sort of thing’ is to be expected. Whilst it may be true that you’re more likely to be killed by terrorism in Baghdad than London, the overriding point is that if all life is sacred, then a death from terrorism should sadden us regardless of both it’s geographical and cultural context or rarity.

3. ‘These people aren’t real Muslims’

One of the more common reactions to the violence in France has been to say ‘these attacks have nothing to do with Islam’ or ‘these people aren’t real Muslims’, or words to that effect. It is a matter of great thanksgiving that most who identify themselves as Muslims are peace loving people who want nothing to do with terrorism. Yet one cannot escape the fact that there areparts of the Quran that could quite feasibly be interpreted as justifying such acts.  

Let me be clear, my intention here is not to unfairly malign those who identify as Muslims, or to categorically declare what the correct interpretation of these verses is (the debate continues to rage here), but to encourage acknowledgement of the sad truth that ISIS and organisations like them aren’t simply making things up from the top of their heads when they command their followers to martyr themselves. Why does this matter? Because if we are to fight Islamist terrorism effectively then it is surely essential that we fully understand the root causes, theology being one (but by no means the only) motivation.

4. ‘In humanity lies the answer’

An obvious and natural and reaction to such terrible events is to unite and declare one’s ultimate faith in humanity. Maybe in one sense this is an act of defiance against those deemed as ‘other.’ ‘They’ do not represent ‘us’, and ‘we’ together , because of our ingenuity, kindness, undiminished capacity to love one another and sheer awesomeness will bring an end to terrorism and all the evil we see around us. The same logic applies even if no such ‘othering’ takes place. Somehow, love will win the day, we’ll all be sitting in a (metaphorical) circle, holding hands (metaphorically) singing Kumbaya (metaphorically). Such reactions reflect our largely secular humanist age that tells us that we are glorious self sustaining autonomous agents, bringing in a world which is progressively improving and will continue to do so inextricably. Yet becuse we can’t see beyond ourselves for a solution to the pain, we miss the wood for the trees. We might not like to admit it, but if history teaches us one thing it is that evil done by humans, whether in the form of terrorism or some other ill, will never flee us. This isn’t to say of course that we shouldn’t implement ideas and policies to improve things, of course we should! Yet ultimately, humanity, in the name of this that and the other will continue to commit all sorts of horrors against it’s own race. Thus, the foundational problem of evil will never go away. If its a solution to the indelible problem of evil we’re after, we’d surely do well to start by looking beyond ourselves.

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