Debate: keep calm and carry on in response to terror?


Yes – Freddie Hopkinson

Last Friday’s attacks on Paris represented an attack on our way of life. This year has been marked by major atrocities in France, Kenya and on British tourists in Tunisia, not to mention the chaos that has unfolded across the Middle East. The changes that have seen the rise of Islamic State (IS) across North Africa and the Middle East have spawned a new wave of terrorist attacks – attacks that aim to bring their seemingly distant conflict to our doorsteps. By mercilessly targeting civilians, groups like IS and Al-Shabaab want to polarise our response to current events. Through terror, these groups intend to dehumanise the conflict and to make us respond as unreasonably as they have. Our attackers want to make us feel and behave like we are afraid: we must not let them get their way.

The tragic loss of 129 innocent people in Paris on Friday must be understood from a global perspective. Whether in the 10th arrondissement, or a Kenyan university, an assault of this kind represents an attack on one of the things that we in the West have come to value most; the democratic public space. Our communities work on the basis that we believe that we will be safe when we go out to the shops, to a restaurant, a rock concert, or a political meeting. Our democracies have been built on an understanding that public space matters and that we should not have to live in fear of lawlessness. It was natural for us to revile the horrors of last Friday night not only because of their brutality, but because of their expressed intent. The young people that committed these crimes did them wanting to break our wider faith in our public spaces. If we respond to them by abandoning, or increasing the government management of these spaces, we will be letting the extremists have their way. If fear of attack drives us from our squares, railway stations and universities, we will be accepting the terrorists’ agenda.

No doubt, one of the biggest political winners from France’s tragedy will be the hard right Front National. Only last academic year, we here in Oxford were unfortunate enough to host Marine Le Pen and her rhetoric of senseless Islamophobia. There is a real danger that the exposure to such extremism as we have seen over the last few years will poison our previously tolerant multiculturalism. Whether it is through our approach to Syrian refugees, or our interaction with our own predominantly moderate Islamic community, there are already signs that some people’s patience is beginning to be eroded.

In my opinion, one of the best things Western Europe has begun to achieve since the end of the Second World War has been a consensus that we can gain from a truly tolerant society. If the attacks that have occurred across the Western world since 9/11 have done anything to break down this consensus, I believe that we have truly lost out. Indeed, true defiance of the sectarianism of our harassers should mean a heightened effort to get to know and to tolerate our neighbours. Just like the Australian response to the Sydney coffee house siege of last December, the strongest message we can send to the people that perpetrated these crimes is our support for continued tolerance, integration and cooperation. We should not dignify our attackers with the pleasure of seeing decades of hard work and social process undone at the pull of a trigger.

In the short term, part of the fallout from Friday’s attack has been renewed calls for intensified involvement in Iraq and Syria. President Hollande has vowed that France will destroy IS, sending the Charles De Gaulle aircraft carrier to the Eastern Mediterranean to provide a much larger base for the French aerial bombardment of IS. Yet, even here there is a real danger that we will overreact. Part of the reason why Britain and other countries have been so reluctant to follow the US air force into Syria is that it is unclear how positive an impact our intervention can have. In part, these attacks need to be understood as an invitation from IS to step up our involvement in the Middle East. The extremists want us to fall headlong into the conflict in Syria and Iraq because, on the ground, it will be the biggest propaganda coup they could hope for. In response to continued terrorist attacks, we need to maintain what so far has been a cautious foreign policy. On their domestic front, we should be careful not to privilege IS any more than we already have with the image of freedom fighters defying interventionist Western forces.

Ultimately, drawing from our British experience of terrorism, we need to encourage others to carry on as usual. One of the more amazing images that I can still remember from the 7/7 bombings in London was that, the next day, London commuters were seen taking the Tube to work as if nothing had changed. Despite the emotional turmoil wrecked by the events of the previous day, Londoners reclaimed their public transport system from the memory of their attackers. By carrying on as normal, ordinary people defied the fundamentalists. No grand statement, or policy change carried such a charged message as the resilience of the population. What had started as an anti-democratic assault on British foreign policy was quickly overridden by a collective statement of people power. Londoners did not forget the terror attacks, but, by keeping on as before, they began to forgive them. In the rest of the world, as we saw in London, we can only hope that people are strong enough to respond in a similar way this time around.


No – Harry Gosling

People, cities, countries have a remarkable ability to bounce back. Parisians, Paris, France as a whole will recover from this latest atrocity and life will quickly return to normal. In many ways this is an inherently good thing – terrorist organisations thrive off the spread of fear. The West must not cower but stand up to this vicious affront on its values.

Yet herein lies the problem. Once life returns to normal, once media coverage subsides, and once people begin to carry on with their every-day business, it becomes easy to forget Islamic State (IS). It becomes easy to regard it as a distant problem and to underestimate the threat that it poses not only to the West but to citizens in Iraq, Syria, and other parts of the Middle East.

In the past, the ‘keep calm and carry on’ attitude has been the correct response to the atrocities committed by violent terrorists. Yet this time is different. The violence seen in Paris last week, as well as in Ankara and Beirut, has been indiscriminate; even Al-Qaeda advises against such indiscriminate violence for fear that it could inadvertently cause the death of Muslims. Although certain Al-Qaeda cells have breached these guidelines on numerous occasions, their attacks generally reflect more careful targeting, such as with the killings of Charlie Hebdo staff in Paris earlier this year.

Indeed, despite increasing evidence of the willingness and ability of IS to launch spectacular, indiscriminate attacks on European soil, there has hitherto been a relatively insignificant response from Western powers. The ease with which recruits have been able to continue to travel to IS’s stronghold in Raqqa, Syria is astonishing.

Yet even the ability of radicalised young Europeans to take a plane to Turkey before continuing by road to Raqqa is not quite matched by their ability to return home. This isn’t a point about refugees – although Europe’s response to this particular crisis will necessarily be of considerable importance – rather it is a simple statement of fact. Estimates by security services suggest that at least half of the jihadists who have gone to Syria since the beginning of the Civil War four years ago have returned to their home countries. Undoubtedly they have come back brutalised, well-trained, and in many cases ready to commit acts of violence. 500 such individuals are estimated to be in both France and the UK.

Indeed the failure to stem the flow of jihadists between Europe and Syria is only one aspect of the failure of the West to act. There have been few changes to military campaigns either: when IS attacked the government-held city of Palmyra in Eastern Syria in May, the international coalition coordinating attacks on IS in Syria decided not to react for fear of being accused of propping up the Assad government. IS was thus able to seize Palmyra, terrorise its citizens and destroy its ancient ruins.

Coordinated gun attacks are becoming an increasingly regular feature of European life. These attacks require relatively little organisation, at least compared to the kind of attacks that used to be staged by Al-Qaeda. This reduces the amount of “chatter” available to be picked up by the security services, making foiling all of these kinds of plots in advance an almost impossible task. Indeed as the IRA once warned, “You have to be lucky every time; we only have to be lucky once.”

Devoting more resources to the security services cannot be the solution. Instead, the West must take a more affirmative stance against IS in Syria and Iraq. Countries are at present cautious about launching air offensives that could lead to civilian casualties. This needs to change. The West should act to crush IS, its attempts to establish a caliphate, and its poisonous ideology that is helping to radicalise young Muslims across the world.

It is easy to critique this kind of interventionist policy by pointing to past Western invasions of parts of the Middle East. Yet whereas Al-Qaeda is ineradicable because it can survive by going underground, IS’s raison d’être, and the reason why it has appealed to so many young Muslims, is its pretensions to the establishment of a caliphate. Undermine its territorial ambitions and you take away both its resources and its ideology. The propaganda value of the caliphate would disappear and so the pull that IS exerts on some young Muslims would surely diminish.

On the domestic front, keeping calm and carrying on is not an option either. If attacks are becoming a more regular occurrence, as appears to be the case, then some considerable thought needs to be given to the security of public spaces in major European cities. Any place where citizens gather in large numbers appears to be vulnerable. Israeli-style security checks are likely to be politically untenable but life cannot just continue as normal. Greater numbers of armed police and more secure venues are one way in which governments should respond.

Question marks also hover over the availability of automatic weapons in Europe. Britain is largely the exception here with its strict gun controls. For countries inside the Schengen zone in particular, however, automatic weapons are proving relatively easy to move between countries. Ramping up border checks could help to stem the problem.

Paris changes everything. The kind of indiscriminate violence witnessed last week in the French capital means that this time, the right approach is not to keep calm and carry on.


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