The first I heard of the Paris shootings was in a text message from a friend. I promptly went online and came across the horrifying video of the police officer being murdered as he lay wounded in the street. So my first impression was not of any wider implications but simply the empathy I felt for the helpless creature lying on the pavement. Later my mood began to shift towards outrage.
What did I do then? Well, the only thing I could do to offer a token gesture of solidarity; I took to social media. I tweeted cartoons of Muhammed and expressed my defiance. After a while it all got a bit tiring and I realised how futile and vacuous it was. For me to tweet the offending pictures is not brave and it achieves very little. I began to feel a little embarrassed by my own misplaced reactionary enthusiasm. My total obscurity provides an anonymity that means that I am not placing myself in even the tiniest bit of danger by my actions. It is not pleasant feeling useless and insignificant at such a seemingly pivotal time as this.
After a few days of calm reflection I began to feel trepidatious. The mass outpouring of grief and supposed “solidarity” has led to a collective convulsion in France that has spread across Europe, creating a conformity of thought and lulling us into a false sense of security. There has been too much back slapping as we congratulate ourselves on being beacons of free expression and liberty, it is easy to claim this in comparison with Islamic countries, but in the aftermath we have to calmly check our hypocrisy and our priorities.
Our cherished rights have been steadily eroded for some time now and are under serious and immediate threat. This threat comes from our own governments and as we wonder fearfully where the terrorists will strike next it is they who will come to attack liberty, exploiting our fear and striking when we are at our most vulnerable. Despite the sheer horror of the Paris shootings this must be where our scrutiny and scepticism is mainly focussed, not on Islamists.
Wounded patriotism have inspired a show of unity and much self-congratulatory rhetoric about France being a beacon of liberty. We should not let the rush of emotion accept this without scepticism. Does a free country ban the wearing of certain items of clothing? Does a free country ban you from praying in the street, a serious curb on religious expression? I think it perfectly fair and reasonable that private companies can make their own decisions on such rules, and the face should not be concealed in court, but it a serious violation of individual freedom for the state to dictate that you cannot wear signs of religious affiliation (be it a crucifix necklace or a turban) in schools or face veils in the street. I personally do not like the sight of a niqab but banning something just because we don’t like it is not a liberal thing to do.
It is heartening to see millions marching in the streets in an act of defiance, but it shouldn’t take a massacre to inspire people to fight for their rights. France, it should not be forgotten, restricts freedom of expression with some of the strictest hate speech, defamation, privacy and libel laws in the western world.
The privacy law in France encourages self-censorship because the publication of private details of an individual’s life without consent is a punishable offence. Unlike in Britain there are few public interest clauses. Combine this with French libel laws, which heavily favour those in positions of power (losing a libel case against a public official brings a punitive fine of €45,000 as opposed to €12,000 when a case is lost against a member of the public), and it is easy to see why an unhealthy respect for the privacy of public figures is instilled in French media culture. This too often leaves the powerful beyond media scrutiny and discourages public interest journalism that investigates corruption and impropriety in the lives of politicians.
France has some of the strictest hate speech laws in the EU which go far beyond preventing incitement to violence. Once you start arresting people for simply saying things, or tweeting things you create a censorial instinct that will inevitably stretch beyond the fringes and into the mainstream, making curbs (or attempts to curb) on free speech habitual and seemingly acceptable. It has been little discussed since the Paris shootings but hate speech laws were used to harass Charlie Hebdo for years. Charges were lodged against the magazine in 2006-07 in response to the reprinting of the notorious Danish cartoons, in that instance the court ruled in the magazines favour but notably Jacques Chirac was a cheerleader for the case: “the convictions of someone else, in particular religious convictions, should be avoided”, he said. The magazine would again come under government pressure in 2012 when it reprinted Muhammed cartoons in response to the protests against the film The Innocence of Muslims with Prime Minister Jean-Mar Ayarault stating that freedom of speech is “under control of the courts”. The unity marches are uncomfortably close to being a rally behind the French state, rather than millions of people making a stand for liberty and free expression.
Britain will “never give up freedom of speech”, said David Cameron in his defiant response. But in Britain we are breathtakingly complacent about our rights and it is a bit rich for our politicians to suddenly talk like staunch defenders of liberty. It is fantastic to see people gather in Trafalgar square to hold a vigil for the murdered staff, and attend rallies in the name of free speech. Still, I can’t help that think, again, that no one should have to be murdered for people to start paying attention and celebrating and fighting for our freedoms. If the people rallied together in great numbers against anti-terror legislation, secret courts and RIPA (to name just a few of many illiberal measures) I might have faith in the sincerity and staying power of the current enthusiasm. Instead I fear it is temporary hysteria and back slapping that will ultimately achieve very little before we return to a “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” consensus.
Let us not forget that this “free” country of ours is the land of secret courts, mass surveillance and detention without charge where we have in recent years flirted with the introduction of ID cards and state regulation of the press. The state routinely bans people with “controversial” things to say from entering the country and arrests people for silly tweets (or “malicious communications“). It is not just the state that disgraces liberty, our university campuses are now a hotbed for the authoritarian left which seeks to shut down debate and ban anything it deems unacceptable. It is quite clear that Charlie Hebdo could not operate in Britain, in no time at all it would be banned from all student unions and be subject to the NUS “no platform” policy, its offices would host protests by Unite Against Facism and Hope Not Hate when it wasn’t being picketed by Islamists. Before long the magazine’s staff would be visited by the police and roundly criticised by hand wringing politicians. Je Suis Charlie? Get real.
Now is the time for a wake up call. Stop looking for Islamists under the bed and start defending freedom from the those pretending they are defending it. The PM and Home Secretary didn’t miss and opportunity for political point scoring and phoney outrage when Nigel Farage made some rather innocuous comments about the “very, very small” number of Islamists that represent a “fifth column” in British society (isn’t this a good week for the truth and free expression?). This was a distraction from the deeply cynical comments from Andrew Parker, the head of MI5, who leapt on the chance to fear monger and lobby for greater powers for our security services. Cameron accused Farage of using the tragedy for political ends before announcing plans to resurrect the “snoopers charter” while the shock is still raw.
I’ve no doubt that this will put wind in Theresa May’s sails. Will the Paris shootings soften us up for Extremism Orders? Astonishing measures that would remove the right to freedom of expression (without presenting evidence to justify such an action) when the state has a “reasonable belief” that the accused individual may “disrupt democracy” or incite racial or religious hatred, or cause public disorder? When the Home Secretary proposes a plan to legislate for thought crime, I do not think I am being unreasonable when I say she is a far graver threat to liberty than an Islamist lunatic.
As the collective trauma dies down I hope that, like me, people are jolted out of their initial reaction and re-focus on the real fight for freedom which is not against Islamist terror, but authoritative government and our flourishing intolerant offence culture . The staff of Charlie Hebdo died because they defiantly exercised their right to freedom of expression, but it is not a crazed gunman taking our rights that we should be worried about, it is us a nation giving those right away as we slip back into complacency that should concern us all.