Paris – the need for some thinking space
Paris and the month of November are closely associated in my mind. Until last week that was for totally good reasons. In 1989 we spent the first couple of days our honeymoon there and it was was the perfect backdrop for that most happy time of my life. Last year we returned at the same time of year as we celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary.
I have probably been to Paris more often than any other city other than those I have actually lived in. I have always loved its elegance and character with the chance, in more recent years, to broaden my acquaintance from beyond the well-known sites to discover some lesser known corners of the city. However many times I have visited it never disappoints. It is one of the great cities of the world, not just because it is beautiful but because of its deep culture and the values of it represents of freedom, joie de vivre, intellectual curiosity and tolerance.
From today November and Paris have a different association as I try to get my head round understanding the terrible nature of last week’s attacks on the city and the death of so many innocent people going about their business on a Friday night.
We live in difficult times in which the regular intrusions of terrorist acts have become a reminder of how fragile, at times, the civilisation we take for granted can be. As well as the individual tragedy for those who have lost their lives or the life of a loved one there is a sense of affront to the lives and values of many more. The object of terrorism lies in its name and it succeeds in that aim to no greater extent than when it makes us feel that the places we know and love are no longer safe and spreads mistrust in the midst of our communities and neighbourhoods.
I do not begrudge all the hard talking and promises of retaliation which have come out of the lips of politicians and others over the last week. I would not want to sit in their shoes and try to offer reassurance in the wake of such horrific events. Such acts can only be condemned in the strongest language but at the same time something much deeper and more thoughtful is required if we are to find an effective response to the monstrous events which have been unleashed in our midst. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, was much closer to the mark in describing how the extent to which his faith had been shaken to its roots by what had happened in Paris. Certainty in the light of such events can only be a superficial state of mind.
So how can we can get to the bottom of what the Paris attacks really mean? History offers some lessons. Paris has seen similar events before, whether the St Bartholomew Day’s Massacre of Protestants in 1572, the Revolutionary terror of 1793-4, when human life has been recklessly sacrificed in the name of a religious or political cause. However ideology is rarely the cause but rather the container of human wickedness. The Paris massacres were no more about Islam than the Robespierrian Terror was about liberty, equality and fraternity. However it suits the terrorists for us to see their actions as the clash of cultures and for the bonds of trust between different groups in our communities to be undermined.
What is most worrying for me is to see the deep sense of alienation at the heart of our societies. To some extent this is nothing new but there is something very frightening in the scale and depth to which young people from a range of communities feel totally cut off from western societies whether they act as terrorists in Europe or lone gunmen in the US. While the last thing I would wish to do is to pigeonhole such a phenomenon as mental illness there is no doubt there is a deep level of unexplored trauma and mental distress which leads what in many cases are quite ordinary young people to play out such extreme roles.
I can accept that there has to be a response. Sad though it is these attacks, just like those of the IRA and 9/11 will lead to restrictions in freedom of movement and civil liberties. As we know, once lost, they can take a long time to recover. Some kind of war must be fought against IS but before we go too far we must be clear about what are tactics and objectives are and whether we can be sure of achieving them. Even if we can be sure of winning the war we must think carefully about whether we can win the peace. Recent events in the Middle East and elsewhere are not promising.
On a different scale we were shocked four years ago when the streets of London erupted into riots and indiscriminate violence. A sense of alienation amongst the young and tensions between communities were again a strong factor in what happened. My organisation was involved in responding in one of the communities affected, Tottenham. Through the Thinking Space initiative we were involved in creating a facilitated opportunity for communities to come together and explore their experiences. I am not claiming that it was a panacea but it appears to have done some good in opening dialogue in that community and building trust.
So my plea after Paris is for thinking space. To recognise that however shocked we rightly are by the atrocities that have happened we need not just retaliation but actions which respond to the deeper cause of the horrific events we have seen. For the present though “nous sommes Paris.”