The last few days have been shattering. Despite our defiant and heartfelt hashtags of #JeSuisCharlie and #JeSuisJuif, the terrorists have won the day. Our resistance has been largely symbolic, and it would be naïve to think that terrorists regard our retaliatory cartoons as a credible threat to their designs for carnage and terror. At the end of the day, there are innocent civilians in body bags, the Grand Synagogue is closed for the first time since WWII, and the exodus of Jews from France is only likely to hasten. (And over in Nigeria the death toll has risen by another couple of thousand thanks to a massacre with “too many bodies to count”.) We’re kidding ourselves if we think we’ve met the enemy on the battlefield. This was just a raid, and (to our shame) it was of our camp in the middle of the night while we were sleeping.
The problem with fighting terrorists or monsters is, as Nietzsche observed, that there’s the risk of becoming a monster oneself. Most of us are only one or two small steps away from becoming part of a lynch mob or tools of a totalitarian state. The disconcerting nature of vigilante groups and totalitarianism is that they comprise people who had good intentions, at least to start with. It is all too easy to assign collective responsibility for a dreadful crime or to demonise a particular group of people, especially when reeling from the horror of death and destruction.
All the same, we mustn’t become like them, because this ‘war’ – if you want to call it that – is about what is right and good. If we abandon these notions of morality and fight fire with fire, or murder with murder, then we’ve lost before the fight has begun.
It is true we must fight, but we must fight to win on our terms, moral terms. If we abandon the human rights and democratic values for which we are fighting, the war is lost and we will only have ourselves to blame. Winning this fight means upholding the things we believe in. It means proclaiming the truth – calling a spade a spade and a terrorist a terrorist. It means abandoning special treatment and minority victimhood. And it means rejecting appeasement.
But it does not mean allowing hate to creep into our hearts or legislating revenge. It wouldn’t just be wrong to do so, either; it would be foolish. A ‘crackdown’ on Muslims who have committed no crime and never supported terrorism would play into the terrorists’ hands, reinforcing their propaganda of Muslim victimhood and creating a persecution complex. It would create sympathy and support. The #Illridewithyou campaign was an obscenely inappropriate reaction to a terrorist attack, but all the same we do need to remain on friendly terms with Muslims of goodwill. Ironically, many Muslims really are victims, and we need to recognise this; but they’re not victims of western society, they’re victims of their own (often self-proclaimed) leaders, tribalism, and inertia. Terrorists are just bullies in a schoolyard who’ve grown up and acquired firepower, and becoming a bigger bully isn’t the answer. There are always ‘enemies within’ and we mustn’t shirk from identifying and removing those traitors, but our zero tolerance must be of the bullies, not the bullied.
The challenge ahead is to maintain our righteous anger without succumbing to the temptation of self-destructive revenge, to fight for what remains of Western civilisation without betraying our notions of freedom and democracy. If we wish to avoid more bloodshed we must win the psychological war, and that means convincing all but the most stubborn few that they want to be on our side because: a) we don’t tolerate bullies; and b) we will prevail.
For not just one alone has risen against us to destroy us, but in every generation they rise against us to destroy us; and the Holy One, blessed be He, saves us from their hand!