This situation is not all uncommon – sometimes it is necessary to switch off to really get some work done, even if 90% of your work relies on the internet, like mine. There are times when you just want to be with somebody (friend, lover, family member, pet cat, etc.) without having to be interrupted by the constant need to stay ‘connected.’
I take these mini breaks from the wider world without much thought for what might happen whilst I am gone – after all, what can go wrong in the space of two days?
Well, whilst the rest of the world watched a tragedy unfold in Paris, I remained blissfully unaware of the fact that the rules of the game were changing yet again. On Wednesday night, I slept peacefully, completely oblivious to the collective wail of grief being heard from France to the United States, Mexico, Australia and beyond.
The point that I am trying to make is that the world really did change whilst I slept, whilst I slumbered in a warm and safe bed, so psychologically far away from the ‘evolving terror threat’ that the Charlie Hebdo massacre might as well have been happening on the moon.
We, here in Europe, live in such safe and sheltered societies. We think that we know the dangers, because we tune in to the news for half an hour every evening. We believe that we are prepared for the worst, because we never leave our bags unattended, and there are armed police officers in our airports and railway stations.
We feel like we are a part of the struggle for freedom, but this is not the case. If the news gets too heavy, we can switch over and watch the X Factor. We can take the dog for a walk, or go down the pub with friends. We can tell the most offensive jokes that we know, without a second thought for the consequences. Whilst there will always be threats against our country, the chance of them affecting our lives is extremely slim indeed.
Or, at least they were until this week.
The terrorist attack, which left twelve people dead at the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, is something entirely new. It has brought a previously unimagined sense of terror right to the heart of Europe, a terror which used to be an abstract concept.
Yes, terrorist attacks have occurred within Europe on several occasions before (the London bombings and the 2011 massacre in Norway, amongst them), but even these tragedies quickly acquired a sense of distance. They were devastating, and their significance will never be forgotten, but they suffered from a distinct lack of focus. In Great Britain, particularly, we find it much easier to identify with a tragedy if the victims involved are few and clearly defined.
The Hebdo massacre was an expertly conducted series of executions – we know that now. The cartoonists who were shot were searched for by name, and terminated in the cruelest and coldest way possible. The assassins were well aware of the fact that these men could not defend themselves, yet they confronted them as if they were soldiers on the front line anyway.
I have been trying to get my head around the reasons why this situation feels so different to the 7/7 bombings or the tragedy in Norway – why targeted attacks on individuals (like the murder of fusilier Lee Rigby, for example) often seem to hurt societies deeper and for longer than atrocities on a much larger scale.
As aforementioned, it is easier for human beings to identify with individual tragedies, but it is also the case that targeted attacks give a terrorist agenda much more of an impact. It has taken a long time for Islamic extremists to realise this, but the Hebdo massacre suggests that they are now all too aware of what the best way to spread fear throughout the western world happens to be.
We saw this very clearly with the ISIS execution videos last year. The graphic footage of civilians being beheaded, in the name of Islam, had a gut-wrenching impact on both the British and American public. These lone victims had names, faces, children and histories – stories of which were circulated by the media so often that we felt like we knew them by the end, a fact which made their eventual (and surely inevitable) murders so much harder to deal with.
The role of the media is key in all of this, of course. Whilst suicide bombings and large scale massacres are similarly devastating, they do not make for the most emotionally affecting news packages, because it is impossible to focus on just a handful of personal stories. This is not a criticism of the media, it is a simple truth.
Yet, it does mean that atrocities like the one which occurred at Charlie Hebdo have the potential to be so much more damaging to our way of life here in Europe – and the terrorists know that now, which is why we are suddenly scared in a way that we have not been before. It is why the world is reeling from the news of further attacks coming out of Paris, and it is what (I think) the vast majority of satirists, politicians, cartoonists and religious leaders have been desperately trying to articulate in the aftermath of this tragedy.
It feels like the world has changed, because it has.
Fortunately, the necessary response has not. It does not matter whether we are facing suicide bombs, random shootings or targeted attacks on freedom of the press, unity will always be the key to fighting back. I know it sounds like a cliché – and I am not some wide armed Christian who believes that everything will be fine, if all just join hands and love one another – but I do believe that social division will condemn our free and democratic societies straight to hell.
It is just too easy to turn to Islam, the whole of Islam, and point an angry finger. We must remember that whilst, as the endlessly unhelpful Richard Dawkins points out, it is not accurate or useful to ignore the role that Islamic ideology has played in this tragedy, it is also extremely dangerous (and wholly inaccurate) to believe that this has anything at all to do with regular, law abiding Muslims in France, or anywhere else in the world.
They WILL become the secondary victims of this attack, that much is inevitable at this point, and all that it will mean is that the terrorists who murdered the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists are winning. As I continue to follow reports of the twin sieges currently occurring in France, there is also news of multiple arson attacks on mosques and Muslim businesses.
We can only hope that a measured and rational calm will follow in the weeks and months after this tragedy. We must look to the example set by Sydney in December, and the ‘I’ll ride with you’ hashtag. As an ‘Islamist’ gunmen held civilians hostage at a café, and anti-Muslim rhetoric spread rapidly across social media sites, inspiring and compassionate Australians tweeted the phrase as a message of support for Muslims forced to ride buses and trains in religious attire.
And we must look to the aftermath of the Anders Breivik massacre, in Norway. There was no public outcry, calling for Norwegian Christians to accept responsibility for the murderous actions of a single individual, in the wake of that terrorist atrocity – and there is no fundamental difference between that situation and the one in Paris. The Muslim population in France is as responsible for the terrorist acts that occurred this week as the Christian population in Norway was responsible for the actions of Anders Breivik.
I have said it publicly, and will continue to say it – I loudly lend my support to any caring and compassionate Muslim who needs it in the wake of this tragedy. I am not powerless, and neither are you, because this where our true influence lies. I will defend you online, in the street, in words, in writing, in whatever way may be deemed necessary. It is a small gesture, and it is all I can offer you, but I offer it freely and proudly.
I stand with you, as you will stand with the people of France – just so long as they allow you to.
EDIT: The twin sieges occurring in France throughout the day have both been brought to a remarkable close, in what has to be the most successful outcome possible for the French armed forces. The three terrorists involved have been killed, and all but four of the hostages have been recovered alive – there are reports that the four who sadly died were dead before officers entered the vicinity.
The attention and praise of the free world now needs to turn to the actions of these police officers.