About a week ago I mentioned on Facebook that I thought the news was too depressing to watch. Then Friday night happened: little had I realised just how depressing things could get.
What can anyone say about what has happened in France? The scale of the massacre, the ease with which it was accomplished, the motivation behind it – all are deeply disturbing. There is no comfort to be had, except in the desperate assumption that it could have been even worse.
The following is the thought that haunts me.
The French Republic, with its written constitution, and with its ever-visible symbols, is based on a shared narrative, which is usually summed up in the three words, liberty, equality and fraternity. This family of ideas is the foundation of the French state, the shared basis by which French people live together. However, it has to be said, and it certainly cannot be denied, that there is a minority of people in France that simply does not accept the values of liberal democracy. In practice these people may live as a largely unseen and unnoticed minority amid the general population, but, holding as they do to values opposed to those of democratic pluralism, they represent a challenge to the legitimacy of the state.
Historically speaking, the dissident minority were the French royalists, strongly identified with the Catholic Church. This dissident minority last exercised any semblance of influence under the Vichy regime. Now the dissident minority is Muslim.
I am not saying that all Muslims were responsible for Friday night; but that the perpetrators were Muslim is not in question; and those perpetrators, whoever they are, have a hinterland of support, even though that hinterland may be relatively small. (You don’t need many people to create a terrorist movement. The IRA was never more than a few hundred people.)
Even with a tiny dissident minority, such as this one might be, given that they are prepared to use indiscriminate violence against the state and the people, one is left asking, how can democracy and pluralism survive? And this leads to a bigger question: how can any state survive when the loyalty of all citizens to the idea of the state is not assured? What can be done? Can the problem of dissident minorities be cured by teaching British values in schools? I think I know the answer to that question.
From this comes something else. The assumption at first was that the perpetrators were French. Perhaps the perpetrators were holders of French passports, just as the perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket massacres were. But to say they were French, when they clearly hate France and the French and French values, is the equivalent of a legal fiction. A French passport does not make you French. Similarly the deluded youngsters who have left Britain to go to join ISIS in Syria are not British, whatever their passports may say. The relationship between the citizen and the state is a two way thing; the state has obligations to its citizens, and the citizens to the state.
Governments must deprive terrorists and terrorist apologists of their passports; not to do so is illogical. If that means a change in the law, so be it. Again, governments should have the powers whatever “snoopers’ charter” proposes. The first casualty in this war will be some of our civil liberties – but that is the price we have to pay.
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