The murders in France have everybody talking right now. They are all over our mass media. The outrage is enormous. And rightly so, because these were horrible actions. I’m glad to have already seen beautiful and hopeful pictures of demonstrations, showing support for the individual victims, for the French newspaper CharlieHebdo, and especially, support for our freedom of speech.
There are thousands of policemen looking for the perpetrators right now. I hope they’ll be caught, and that they’ll be judged after a proper trial. Especially that, after a proper trial. To make sure we punish the right people, and not the innocent. Because that is one of the great things in our society – a fair justice system, that offers citizens a chance to defend themselves.
It’s those latter parts I want to write about today. Freedom of speech and fair justice. Or actually I want to talk more broadly, about all the civil and political freedoms and rights we have in our (modern, western) society, such as our right to privacy, our freedom of religion and freedom to assembly. In short, I fear we might lose them.
Politicians are up in arms, sending out tweets and speeches, condemning this cowardly attack. But whilst this is enough for now, people are already asking questions: “How are we going to make sure this doesn’t happen again?” People are afraid. People are angry. People – voters – will want to see politicians taking action.
In a few days, the dust will have settled. With some bad luck, we will see the first proposals. More budget for the secret services. More budget for the police. More camera surveillance. More surveillance of muslims. More pat-downs of colored people. More suspicion of every non-hipster with a beard.
We’ve been seeing this since 9/11. In the name of protecting our free society, we’ve been handing over basic freedoms to our governments, hoping that somehow, this will protect us. It hasn’t, and it has only served to diminish that which we’ve tried and claimed so hard to protect: our freedoms.
I’m going to make a comparison which will sound preposterous, and maybe it’s too soon, but please, bear with me.
The Freedom To Have A Car Accident
Statistically, in western countries, you’re far more likely to ever die from a car accident than from a terrorist attack, or even plain homicide. The number of deaths our societies put up with because of cars is enormous, but yet, nobody is proposing to abolish cars. Why not?
Because cars are super useful. I’d estimate that around 70% of all people transport themselves from their homes to their work by car. Cars – and more specifically, trucks – move huge quantities of people and cargo, especially to places that can’t be reached by boat or plane, or even by train. If we didn’t have cars, our economies would experience a major setback. We could probably manage without them, but it’d be a drag.
In short, we consider car accidents to be an acceptable loss compared to the great advantages that come with being able to have a car.
However harsh it sounds, 11 people murdered doesn’t even approach the number of car deaths we have each year, yet our basic civil rights are more important than any car. It is, so to speak, a loss we have to accept – up to a certain point, of course.
I don’t want to say that we should put up with any murderous fanatic. Just like we work to prevent car accidents, we should work our best to prevent any form of mass murder, whether it is done by religious extremists, violent political activists, or just rampaging psychopaths. But in a society where citizens have the freedom to walk to streets without being frisked by a police officer on every corner, where citizens have the freedom to distribute music, writings, and opinions among their friends and even among strangers, you leave room for error. And we need to accept this.
You Can’t Stop Every Asshole With A Gun
There’s another way, of course. We could continue down the path we’ve set on in 2001, sacrificing freedoms for tiny scraps of security and “the greater good”. In effect, we could choose to become China, where all citizens are heavily monitored, the government knows all or at least attempts to, and dissidents, whether they are (potentially) violent or not, are dealt with swiftly and often silently. This is an option, and it would work fine, seeing as how China is still doing fine.
But I wouldn’t want to live in such a society. I’m far more willing to take the small possibility of three lunatics shooting up my workplace than to have no freedom in said workplace, to not be able to express divergent opinions, or to not have to be frisked every time I walk the streets at the newly instated checkpoint around the corner.
And even in China, these things happen. In the end, there was no realistic way we could’ve stopped Volkert van der G. shooting politician Pim Fortuyn, or Anders Breivik shooting two hundred children, killing sixty-nine of them. Lone lunatics simply can’t be found in time.
This is harsh, because in the 21st century, a lone lunatic – or a group of three – has access to AK-47s, homebrew bombs, and other weaponry that is highly effective at killing. People with modern weaponry can do a lot of damage, because our species has specialised in killing itself ever since we first picked up sticks and stones.
And not only that. We’d do well to remember that our current mass media is largely commercial. They exist to make a profit, or at least earn enough of an income to keep running, and they do so by having as much viewers as possible. Our news is sensationalistic, and it wants you to keep on watching – in horror, if you must. Whereas nobody is reporting that in fact, society as a whole is still functioning perfectly, despite the deaths of innocents people, however spectacular and scary they might be.
Freedom Isn’t Free
In conclusion, what we need to realise is that no terrorist group, no lone lunatic, no murderer in general, has the means to change our society. But politicians do, and politicians are influenced by us, the voters. If we choose to be afraid, to take action, we will lose. We will lose because we will start endless wars, aptly apparent in the imminent bankruptcy of the U.S. due to the Iraqi war. We will lose because we will start thought policing ourselves, as we’ve seen not only in the extreme case of the PRISM program, but also in common police forces using drones to surveillance urban areas, and an increase in phone taps. We will lose because we’re giving up exactly those basic freedoms a religious fanatic is attacking.
Our freedom does come at a price, but it shouldn’t be thousands of soldiers dying on foreign ground, nor should it be the demolition of our justice system. There is nothing gained by the unlawful expulsion of innocent people who happen to belong to the same religion as the perpetrators – in the case of Islam, that would mean 20% of the world’s population is guilty-by-religion. It means nothing to protect “our values” if by protecting them we lose them.
In short, the price of freedom is an occasional lunatic. But remember, we can take them. We’re surviving cars after all, and they’re far more deadly than any terrorist.
Great article. However, I object to your use of the term ‘lunatic’. There is no objective reason to suspect these killers were mentally ill. Misguided perhaps, maybe obsessed with some book, or just ‘bad guys’, but not necessarily crazy. Why? Because it obfuscates a truth that’s very often too scary to admit to ourselves: normal, sane folks too are capable of gruesome, despicable acts. Most of these killers knew exactly what they were doing.
I fully agree. My using of the term “lunatic” was overly dramatic, and doesn’t convey quite the right meaning. Terrorist attacks are usually highly rational, well-planned and they aim for specific purposes. It’s just that most of us couldn’t reasonably imagine doing such things. However, regarding them as true “lunatics”, keeping to that definition of persons with a clinical, mental illness, is indeed the wrong ways to look at it. Thanks for the nuance!