The world is joined in mourning with the people of Paris. Friday’s attacks on its citizens were cruel and barbaric. Speaking at an informal event in Australia, the Prince of Wales described the atrocities as “bestial” and urged his guests to show “solidarity” with France. David Cameron told the French people: “Your values are our values, your pain is our pain, your fight is our fight.” And he warned that there would be British casualties. The target was Paris but the whole world is wounded.
The peace of a Sunday is an opportunity to reflect upon what this horror means: for Europe, for Britain and for all of us and our families. One key question is whether or not the UK needs to commit itself fully to the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) in Syria. This group has claimed responsibility for Paris, citing French air strikes against its fighters as a pretext. Some Britons may nervously ask: “If France was attacked because it was at war in Syria, why should the UK put itself at a similar risk?” Supporters of intervention would doubtless point out that Britain has long been the target of terrorist violence, that its personnel have already assisted US-led operations and that it would be an admission of defeat to allow fanatics to dictate policy.
The question of how to keep Britons safe at home is equally controversial. What tools do the security agencies need to do their job? Among other proposals, the Government wants to legally require communications firms to help spies access suspects’ data. Such laws are opposed by civil libertarians on the grounds that the West becomes the thing it hates when it sacrifices liberty for security. But, says the Government, we do not live in an ideal world. We share a flawed one with criminals who use modern communications to recruit and plot. Poor France has endured a year of these terrorist activities. In January there were attacks on the Charlie Hebdo magazine and a kosher supermarket. In June a man tried to destroy a gas factory; his boss’s severed head was found at the scene. And in August a young Moroccan was subdued upon a Paris-bound train while apparently trying to attack travellers.
France is a country that many of our readers will know and love – for its landscape, its culture and its fraternal spirit. It is traditionally an open society, one that has welcomed people from across the globe and tried to integrate them into its egalitarian values. The great actor Sacha Guitry once said: “Being a Parisian is not about being born in Paris, it is about being reborn there.” France has its problems, particularly on societal fringes that often look as though they have been abandoned to neglect and alienation. Nevertheless, it is a country with a historic identity and spirit that never dies. Paris was the city of revolutionary barricades; France was the scene of the Second World War resistance. It is a defiant country that prospers against the odds.
Of course, fear can infect a national spirit. One of the most insidious things about terrorism is the way in which it makes us look at ordinary activities in a whole new way. Are we safe visiting the Louvre? Are we taking a risk by boarding a plane to New York? Is a bus ride in London a gamble? The answer to all of these questions is almost certainly “no”. But the murderers in France struck at people doing the most innocent, normal of things. Watching a football match, attending a music concert, eating at a restaurant. Isil wants to turn everyday life into a battleground. By convincing Westerners that the war is eternal and unwinnable, the fanatics hope that we will simply give in and surrender.
We must not allow them to get their way. Westerners have to improve their security while also trying to go on with life as they always did before. But now, hopefully, they might take time to reflect on how precious that life really is. The small things matter. We are lucky to enjoy them. It is not everywhere in the world that a newspaper can freely articulate its opinion and the reader can concur or disagree. In Raqqa, the Isil capital in Syria, men and women are subject to strict dress codes, indoctrination and the threat of execution. In the West, by contrast, there is tolerance in religion and equality in law. A person can broadly do whatever they like and grow up to become whoever they want to be. On a Sunday such as this they are free to lunch in peace with their family. That might seem like a simple thing. But when relatives on social media are posting photographs of loved ones lost in Paris, the small things suddenly matter more.
The dream of the good life ought to unite Britons more than it does. Our politics is too often divided by partisanship, trivialities and, of course, serious debate – such as over the best way to secure the defence of the realm. But the nation is united by the desire for peace and freedom. There are moments when Britons have to put aside their differences, acknowledge our shared problems, roll up our sleeves and get on the with the task ahead. This is one such moment.