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Monday, January 12, 2015 

Charlie sets the example.

It's always reassuring to see just how quickly unity and resistance can be appropriated by the very people who want nothing of the sort.  Call me a negative Nancy, but it's one thing for people to spontaneously come together in silent protest and remembrance, as they did on Wednesday night, and something remarkably different when the state itself then urges everyone to do so.  Martin Rowson's cartoon in the Graun points out how the murdered Charlie Hebdo journalists would have seen the irony in politicians who refuse to endorse freedom of speech being invited to march alongside their fellow leaders, and when it comes to Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas joining the parade, who can't talk to each other but will take part in any opportunity for self-promotion, the bad taste left in the mouth has lingered ever since.

Admittedly, Netanyahu hardly couldn't go considering the racist targeting by Am├ędy Coulibaly of a kosher supermarket, yet it still didn't feel quite right how the Israel/Palestine conflict, regardless of your personal views on it, without doubt exacerbates tensions in a way little else does.  And let's not pretend Israeli politicians of any stripe have recently attempted to calm such feelings: we only have to recall Netanahyu's response to the murders of three Israeli teenagers, when he called for "God to avenge their blood", to realise it's not just non-state actors that invoke religion when they want to.  There have been criticisms of some of the language used by politicians in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, with questioning even of describing the attacks as "barbaric" considering the word's origins, but European leaders have been moderate in the extreme compared to the rhetoric casually thrown back and forth elsewhere.  The cynical response of the Israeli government to those murders led directly to last summer's Gaza conflict, which in turn sparked the horrified news reports about the rise of anti-semitism in Europe.  Nothing of course justifies racism in any form, but when the Israeli government ostensibly collapsed on the very issue of legislation that would have defined Israel as a Jewish state, those same politicians know the game they are playing.

This said, it would be difficult not to be moved by the size of the crowds on the streets of France yesterday.  One wonders however if this was precisely because all real semblance of meaning had already been stripped from "Je suis Charlie", the marches being little more than a indication that life would carry on as before, as though it wouldn't have done anyway.  You could also if you wanted characterise it as a very French reaction to an attack on France rather than one on "freedom of speech" or "universal values"; demonstrating, marching is in the French national character, going all the way back to 1789, passing 1968 right up to the present day.  It just doesn't seem like something that would ever be repeated here, perhaps you can snidely comment because there isn't any such thing as a British national character, and even if there were it certainly wouldn't involve taking to the streets.

Moreover, for all the angry responses to the Charlie Hebdo attack, including from myself, justified as they were, it should once again bring home just how weak those who have set themselves against the West are.  We can agonise over the alienation, and the sense of dispossession some in marginalised communities feel against the countries they were often born in or which gave them sanctuary, and yet it ought to bring home just how small in the number those who feel this way really are.  Compared to those previously attracted to fascism or communism, neither of which are really comparable to jihadism beyond the utopian, or in practice dystopian ideals at their ideological core, it's indicative of just how easy it is to overhype the threat.  To those in Nigeria, let alone in Syria or Iraq, the last few days seen from the outside must have seemed the epitome of Western solipsism.

As I wrote following the release of the ISC report into the murder of Lee Rigby, we've apparently moved past the point where the threat is spectacular mass casualty bomb attacks to one where it's one or two armed men against the full weight of the state.  One armed man carrying out a spree killing in a heavily populated area is almost impossible to prevent.  In France on Friday we're told 80,000 police officers were mobilised, and Coulibaly still managed to launch his deadly assault on somewhere which made for an obvious target.  All three men were also known to the authorities, as were Rigby's killers.  Rather than this being a failure, as much as it is, it also shows how total security is an impossibility.  If someone is motivated enough, they will act, and they can't always be stopped.

This doesn't though stop the authorities from saying if only they had this power, if they only could do this, we'd all be that much safer.  Andrew Parker's speech on Thursday was coincidental rather than taking advantage, but it was no doubt further weaponised after Wednesday's events.  The cynics amongst us might note how it was the head of GCHQ who first denounced internet companies as effectively being hand in glove with terrorists, with his theme fully approved by the ISC in their Rigby report afterwards, no doubt completely unconnected events.  Now in the aftermath of Parker's sermonising, the same old faces and newer ones with their eyes on a greater prize solemnly agree on how essential it is the intelligence agencies get the ability to do whatever the hell they like, which is without hyperbole what they're demanding.

It doesn't seem to occur that it's the very openness of our society that makes us stronger, not as some would have it, more susceptible.  The sight of military personnel outside Jewish schools, while understandable and probably justified as those connected with the killers are sought, is exactly the sort of change those behind the attack seek.  Something meant to reassure nearly always has the exact opposite effect.  It's a small thing also, but it felt distinctly odd on Friday hearing journalists talk about the killing of the three behind the separate attacks being the "best possible outcome"; surely the best outcome would have been to deny them the martyrdom they sought and to bring them before a court, although that was probably impossible in the case of the Kouachi brothers coming out shooting.  Charlie Hebdo itself provides the example we ought to follow: that of continuing as before while remembering.

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