Today and Beyond the Values of Liberté, égalité, Fraternité Belong to Us All

We try but mere words cannot not give true expression to the horrific attacks in Paris. In what is the worst terrorist incident on European soil since the 2004 Madrid bombings, the murder of some hundred people as they went about their daily, lawful lives is too shocking to describe with only language. Our mortal frailty, that tenuous hold each of us has on life, is exposed; an exposure made worse by the fact that this is not a random devastating act of nature or the ordinary commonplace circumstance which robs a person of life, but brutal and planned violence with the intent to kill, and kill indiscriminately for supposed political purpose. It is deeply upsetting to think that so many people, put simply, suddenly no longer live.

We search for words because we are human. They give structure to our lives. Ultimately however rational we are, confronted by our helplessness we struggle for meaning. Yet can we find meaning when the first word we often grasp is ‘senseless’? On Friday 13th November 2015 people were enjoying an end to their week; they went to football matches and concerts, restaurants and theatres; they had every expectation of continuing their weekends with family and friends, but lost their lives in an atrocious act of bloodshed. There can be no meaning here.

can we find meaning when the first word we often grasp is ‘senseless’?

At the time of writing over one hundred and twenty people have been killed. By the time the death toll has been finally counted it will be many more. More will have been injured. Hundreds will have lost loved ones, friends or work colleagues. François Hollande, the French President, has declared a state of emergency and closed borders to deal with the attack. Today the streets of Paris are guarded by military personnel. Paris is in mourning again, too soon after the terrible shootings at the Charlie Hebdo offices.

Then the world mourned with the French people, and no doubt they will again. It is not a cliché to say, as Barack Obama did, that this is an attack on all humanity: the cry of ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité’ contains a common bond.

Meaning and significance are not the same thing. There will be a political response. It is inevitable. Governments will act both collectively and individually. Hollande has defined these attacks as an act of war from ISIL, and there will be ramifications for our policy in Syria and Iraq. There will also be a reaction from us, the people, those who do not have armies to control or national security to consider. In some ways, this response is as important.

We all have the instinctive need to be right. It is a human fault. But now we must find it in ourselves to rise to more than that: for some it will be tempting to see a direct causal link between Western ‘aggression’, or ‘colonialism’, in the Middle East and these attacks. While there may be a certain validity in the point, it is not the time for gloating or point-scoring; nor are complex international events so easily understood or blame for Friday’s murders so neatly attributable. We might be in a similar situation had Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria not happened. By speaking the same language as apologists for terrorism, some make their role, and the recruitment of extremists, easier. Western policy is only one part of a picture. Let us not simplify issues to aggrandise ourselves.

we must always remember our values, and we must counter, with actions and words, this ugly ideology

We must also work to ensure there is not a wave of retaliatory attacks on racial, cultural or religious lines. The killers may have been Islamic extremists but that does not mean Islam is our enemy. We must not allow racism, or fear, to cloud our judgement and humanity. The Klu Klux Klan perpetrated many murderous acts in the name of Christianity, but people never blamed the Christian faith. The killers alone are responsible and represent only themselves. Without trust we have, in part, already lost.

As they left La Stade de France football fans, probably unsure as to what exactly was happening across their city, sang La Marseillaise. There is another piece of music that resonates: last week on Remembrance Day we paid tribute to those who have fallen in war. It is for many an emotional occasion, heightened by that simple score, The Last Post which sounds as we begin a two-minute silence. Eighteenth century in origin it is sometimes associated with jingoism and Empire: played at the funerals of Winston Churchill and John F Kennedy, it was also played at the funerals of Mohandas Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. It is a piece of music that now contains no attached value but is a tragic, universal anthem for the dead. Character is not set. Change is not just a fact of life but also evidence of living.

Today we grieve for lives lost. The bleak awfulness of death is that life goes on. A twitter hashtag soon becomes forgotten. Life is ever cruelly relentless. As the collective wound imperfectly heals, we must always remember our values, and we must counter, with actions and words, this ugly ideology. But let us make sure that as we go on we remember the lesson of The Last Post.

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About the author

Disclaimer is a group of writers, journalists, and artists who have been brought together by their desire to tackle serious issues with a light and humorous touch. A mixture of idealists and pragmatists, Disclaimer is socially very liberal, economically less so. The editorial stance is formed collectively, based on the shared values of the magazine. Gonzalo Viña founded Disclaimer with the help of Phil Thornton who oversees the economics coverage. Graham Kirby is the editor.

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