How to be a Western liberal in an age of terror

Nous sommes tous les Parisiens. Je t’aime Paris. #IStandWithFrance.

Millennials are coming to terms as only we can with an attack on our own. The shootings and bombings that ripped through the French capital on Friday night targeted trendy restaurants and music venues. We were Charlie in January but our hearts weren’t really in it. Charlie Hebdo drew mean cartoons about Islam and that’s racist and maybe they shouldn’t have been so provocative.

We feel this one more. It could have been us. And so our social media profiles are awash in red, white and blue. Hashtags announce our solidarity with the slain and selfies bear sombre declarations of stoic defiance.

“We are not afraid.”

Well, I am. I’m terrified. Diners are being shot. Concert-goers are being shot. Men are blowing themselves up outside soccer stadiums. Assassins walk among us, quietly and methodically arranging our deaths. Law enforcement and intelligence agencies will net many of them in time but others will slip through and bring carnage to yet more cities.

Fear is a legitimate response and so is anger. Other reactions I have less time for. That’s open borders for you, American acquaintances remark. Israeli friends are trying, some more successfully than others, to avoid the words “I told you so”. Not now. Later but not now.

Knuckle-draggers are blaming all Muslims. There are 1.5 billion Muslims in the world. When the bullets started flying at 9.16pm on Friday 13, Muslims were at work or at home with their families; they were falling in love and striking business deals; they were returning home from jumu’ah or out drinking and having affairs; they were being good and great and foolish and terrible people. Only seven of them were bleeding the streets of Paris.

Well-meaning right-ons refuse to acknowledge the Islamist character of the atrocity. “Terrorists are not practising true Islam.” “Islam is a religion of peace.” On Twitter, everyone has a law degree, a master’s in theology, and ten years’ counter-terror training.

The murderers were Islamists and slaughtered in aid of that doctrine, an imperial and millenarian fusion of religious and political Islam. They killed 129 people for a medieval sky fairy and his warrior-prophet, for that is Islam to them: Laws and death. Their dull fanaticism reduces the Qur’an to an instructions manual, deprived of its subtle beauty. The fruit of the olive tree will never nourish them; the light of the lamp will not penetrate their minds.

Islam is a religion like all others; it merits no special treatment. But there is a struggle for the soul of this great faith and in this civil war we cannot remain neutral. The forces of modernity deserve our support and solidarity. We are at war with people who behead aid workers and gun down cartoonists. We are not at war with Muslims. Anyone who still needs that explained to them has probably already chosen their side.

The appeasers and fellow-travellers too have chosen their side, as if it was ever in doubt. “We brought this on ourselves,” Salon tells us. Parisians were “reaping the whirlwind” of Western foreign policy, according to Stop the War Coalition in a statement so callous even they later deleted it. That Pooterish crank Tariq Ali chunters, “The West is NOT morally superior to the jihadis. Why is a public execution with a sword worse than an indiscriminate drone attack?” (His solution is the dismantling of Israel and its replacement with a binational state. Muslims kill Parisians and still the Jews are to blame.)

In an open society besieged by an enemy that uses that very openness against us, what’s a liberal to do?

Solidarity is a liberal value. We should stand with Parisians and the Beirut Shiitesmurdered by ISIS the same day. Not merely say we will stand with them but actually do it. France has bombed Islamic State targets in Syria. It will make no difference. We need concerted action by a broad coalition, including airstrikes and more arms for the Kurds. No one wants a ground war but we may not have a choice.

National security is a liberal value. What higher duty for government than the protection of its citizens? Europe has sheltered under US defence spending since the end of World War II — and been richly snide about it along the way. American global leadership, such as remains, cannot shield us from an asymmetric conflict where the theatre of war is our own streets. That will take higher spending on defence, security and intelligence.

The Islamic State can’t be fought in its physical strongholds alone; it must be defeated in the terrain of the mind. What we need as keenly as military might is civilisational confidence. Liberal democracy is objectively superior to every other political system. The Western inheritance — individual freedom, intellectual openness, scientific inquiry, free markets — is objectively superior to societies and cultures that are illiberal, closed, incurious, and static. We are right. They are wrong.

Security is a liberal value. The law guards our freedom and is due our jealous defence. As Jefferson reminds us, however: “The laws of necessity, of self-preservation, of saving our country when in danger, are of higher obligation. To lose our country by a scrupulous adherence to written law, would be to lose the law itself, with life, liberty, property and all those who are enjoying them with us; thus absurdly sacrificing the end to the means.”

The laws of necessity unrestrained can become a charter for tyrants. Our liberties were hard-won and we would be foolish to strike a devil’s bargain with an almighty state, bartering freedom for security. Nevertheless, we have to protect ourselves and that will mean compromising some of our ideals.

It’s time to get a little less dainty and a lot less squeamish. We are already deploying drones and extra-judicial killing; we should be prepared to extend the use of these techniques where necessary. As we eliminate the hard infrastructure of Islamism, we will need to target its softer furnishings: Hate preachers and inciters should face deportation or the loss of British nationality, as applicable. Intelligence gathering and policing will become more intensive and at times intrusive but we must take care to cabin this to counter-terrorism. There will be difficult decisions on how we go about identifying suspects, how long we may detain them, and the conduct of interrogations.

None of these are easy questions; some make me very uncomfortable. We are fortunate to be rich and privileged and alive. We don’t get to be innocent too. My assessment of the Western moral character does not hinge on how we deal with seventh century religious fascists. I start from the knowledge that we will never be “just as bad as them”. To be a liberal in an age of terror requires us to defy Robert Frost’s aphorism about the man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel. Our grandparents went to war to smash totalitarianism and it falls to our generation to show similar foresight and courage. We can be more than over-indulged crybabies whining about “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” and our 17 flavours of gender.

It doesn’t end here. This will happen again in Paris and Madrid and London. Snipers along the Autobahn, perhaps, or a holdall left in St Peter’s Square. Many more innocents will be rent from the arms of their loved ones. Our liberal societies are under fire. It’s time to get off Twitter and stand up for ourselves.

Originally published on STV News. Feature image © Christiaan Triebert by Creative Commons 2.0.

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