Charlie Hebdo attack: In defence of Liberté

To grant sweeping powers to intelligence agencies would be an admission of defeat for Western ideals

Thousands of pens and candles – lifted into the sky – turned one of Europe’s darkest nights into a festival of defiance that glowed from the Place de la République, to Trafalgar Square and across the Mediterranean to Tunis. It was a sight to lift the heart. The response from the French population – the majority of it – mixed mourning and anger with a spirit of togetherness.

Cries of “Je Suis Charlie” have turned from a gesture of solidarity into the practice of it: several French media organisations have pledged to lend Charlie Hebdo everything it needs to begin the tortuous process of recovery. The magazine itself is to publish an issue as scheduled – with a vastly increased print run of one million copies. What a rebuttal it would be to see the Charlie Hebdo brand, whatever one may think of it, rise from the floor stronger than it has ever been.

As is to be expected, the remaining staff of the magazine are under close police guard, and wider questions of security in Europe have taken on greater prominence still. The nature of the attack underlines the challenge for intelligence agencies: the terrorists certainly acted in a co-ordinated fashion, better prepared than the Woolwich killers, but neither the weapons used – AK-47s with ammunition from 1986 – nor the target – a “soft” one, in the parlance – bespeak a necessarily high level of organisational sophistication. The less complex the plan, the fewer signals can be detected before its enactment.

A few weeks before, in Nantes and Dijon, “lone wolf” assailants needed no weaponry at all: men simply drove cars into crowds, injuring 23. It is simply impossible to eradicate the risk of such attacks – especially while wars in Syria and Iraq add fuel to the fire of jihadism. The only solace to be found is in the scarcity of lethal violence: European citizens are nearly 2,000 times more likely to die in a traffic accident than as a result of terrorism. The likes of MI5 – which has offered support to its French colleagues – are owed some congratulation for that.

Nevertheless, there are those who would respond to this week’s massacre by handing even greater powers to the intelligence agencies, at the price of civil freedoms. The aftermath of a tragedy is never the best time to adopt new policy, especially in the realm of counter-terrorism. The release last year of the Senate report into CIA torture – sanctioned by the highest levels of American government – constitutes a fresh enough warning of that.

In practice, France already has one of the weightier security apparatuses in Western Europe: including ID cards, extensive surveillance and new powers, passed in October, to disrupt and target potential terrorists. None of this was enough. More of it is unlikely to stop such a conclusion being reached again.

Meanwhile, in the supposed defence of a free and liberal society, politicians in the United Kingdom will seek once more to drive through Bills that would undermine such cherished values. Moves in this direction – such as the Conservatives’ proposed Snooper’s Charter – are to be firmly resisted. Simply, to reach for such legislation is to let fear win. It grasps at the illusion of safety but is certain only to erode every British citizen’s right to privacy; to use the internet, or a mobile phone, without the sensation that GCHQ is breathing down the back of our neck.

And though we may all be equal before the law, we are not before the eye of the intelligence agencies. For Muslim parents, the Home Office’s recent proposal to require nursery staff to report on “children at risk of being drawn into terrorism” feels like a measure targeted exclusively at their sons and daughters. Division and suspicion will result. The security services may well have to update their tactics in response to the Paris atrocity. But precision must be the watchword. The safest society is one where no demographic feels that deviance is assumed of it.

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