I do not particularly appreciate the work of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. I frequently find it distasteful and offensive. And I do like to live in a society where others are able to freely express themselves and I am able to openly dislike or disagree with. That is what the right of expression is about. Of course it is not an absolute right and, of course, when the critique is about sensitive issues, such as religion, race, sexual orientation or gender, someone will most certainly get offended. This is not the main purpose of the satire. As history shows us, this kind of critique has prompted reflections, discussions and cultural, political and social changes.
Thus said, a cold-blooded attack was conducted against the headquarters of the magazine, in Paris, and 12 innocent persons were killed, due to the drawing of a cartoon. I cannot help lingering on the absurdity of these words as I write them. And to feel, over again, the shock, the incredulity, the anger, the frustration, the revolt, the hope. And the fear. The fear of this invisible enemy who is able to strike anywhere, at any time, against anybody. The very same feelings that are awaken each time a terrorist attack occurs.
Looking at the solidarity marches held in Paris, it is unavoidable to outline the particular unifying effect of this particular attack. It has united those in favour of freedom of speech, freedom of information, and, ultimately, the rule of law and democracy ideals. Values that are so deeply anchored in our mindsets and yet so frequently put at risk. On the other side, it has ignited one of the most powerful and basic feelings, the fear. The same fear which has empowered anti-immigration movements with an afresh wave of arguments, increased xenophobia and fed the confusion of concepts such as Muslims, Islamism, extremism and terrorism. As strange as it can be, this event has joined in solidarity existing conflicting ideals that would not be put side to side otherwise. And this is where the scission happens.
In fact, when individuals feel insecure and threatened, intolerance, regarding minorities, cultural, ethnic and religious, for instance, arises. It has happen before. It has been happening more frequently due to the economic crisis. And it has happened again a few days ago, considering the almost immediate popularity of some extreme right political parties on social networks.
Moreover, fear does not only compel individuals to pacifically accept the sacrifice others’ rights and freedoms in order to preserve their own privileges and liberties. In the name of an alleged bigger value, such as national security, individuals also tend to more easily allow, without questioning, restrictions on their own civil and fundamental rights. Anything to feel safe again or at least live the comfort of that illusion.
Times like these, where these kinds of emotions and beliefs so vividly oppose a common threat, are therefore treacherous. One particular danger subsists in the appearance of legitimacy from which certain not so legitimate political ideals and governmental initiatives may benefit.
For instance, in the wake of the abovementioned attack, the French government has notified the European Commission of the impending publication of decrees allowing that websites advocating or promoting terrorist practices or ideals could be blocked without the intervention of a judge.
In this particular case, I sincerely fail to see any relation between the attack itself and such online activities or to perceive how such decrees will somehow help to prevent any eventual similar attacks in the future. However, it is much certainly a first step to take control over the content of online communications and to achieve the desired Internet governance. In the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations, it was already been made clear how interesting our communications can be to some intelligence services. Of course, if censorship can ever be defensible, it is particularly in this case. Nevertheless, it is a very hazardous path. Where to draw the limit? What guarantees do we have that this is just not the climbing of the first step of the staircase? When will surveillance measures be enough?
Furthermore, the fight against terrorism being primarily of their competence, and in what seems to be the result of passionate emotions and precipitation, some EU Members States are already developing extra security measures. No surprise here. Following a terrorist attack, it is quite common for governments to push for increased surveillance.
I have to admit that I am very sceptic in regards of the efficiency of a more intrusive government surveillance. I do believe that surveillance is needed to be conducted in order to tackle terrorism. But the police and the intelligence services do already conduct surveillance activities which allow for the identification of people involved in terrorist activities. For instance, the Cherif and Said Kouachi brothers, the authors of the attack conducted against Charlie Hebdo, were already known to the security services and this has not prevented the horrific murder of those people. Moreover, Charlie Hebdo was already known as a potential target, as it has been firebombed in 2011.
So to argue that more invasive powers of surveillance on a larger scale, which will imply to treat everyone as a suspect, are required in order to prevent future attacks is very unconvincing. Surveillance must be targeted and limited and the competence of courts in regards of restrictions to individuals’ fundamental rights cannot be diluted.
Considering the existing fear, it is very easy to turn terrorist attacks into the perfect excuse for the practice of mass surveillance and a full government control over the Internet. However, this would get us dangerously close to the very same political regimes we are so proud to differ of. Contrarily to what some of us might think or say, we do not want to risk living in a society where we all are monitorized and afraid to express ourselves. Mass surveillance does not only violate our privacy, it also undermines our ability to speak freely. In this context, the line to censorship can be smoothly crossed. Which is the opposite of what Charlie Hebdo actually stands for.
I mean, if this attack was primarily directed to the freedom of expression of a democratic country, counter-attacking on the same freedom of expression – although in its online manifestation – does seem a little bit odd. Shouldn’t we aim precisely the opposite: to protect the very rights and freedoms that have been attacked? Our freedoms are not protected by further limitations.
At the EU level, border management, internal security, the “foreign fighters” travelling and the online terrorist propaganda were already very vivid concerns. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the European Commission has pledged to present a new programme to fight terrorism. Under the present scenario, it is very likely that the discussions in regards an EU PNR will be boosted.
Only time will tell to what extent these terrorists attacks were able affect our core values. But in the aftermath, it seems that, if the intention of the attack was to undermine our fundamental rights, in the long run, they may be successful.