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After Paris, More Vigilance!

Once again France is faced with an Islamist terrorist attack, the second in Paris in under a year. That against Charlie Hebdo in January was targeted against blasphemers. The seemingly indiscriminate attack last Friday was also targeted – according to the statement later put out by IS – but this time against ‘hundreds of apostates gathered in a profligate prostitution party’ in the ‘rotten alleys’ of ‘the capital of prostitution and obscenity’ – in other words, young people indifferent to differences of race, religion and gender having a good time in a mildly bohemian part of Paris. I am reminded of the failed London car bomb placed outside a nightclub in 2005 ‘to kill slags’.

Friday’s atrocity fits a now common pattern. It is aimed not at states but at peoples, especially people flouting the Islamists’ obsessive Puritanism, which seems above all an instrument of power and oppression. The perpetrators of these crimes – hardly, despite President Hollande’s remarks, acts of war – also fit a pattern. They are themselves young, they have often themselves indulged in – and often over-indulged in – the sorts of pleasures they now attack, often to the lengths of involvement in the drug trade, and not infrequently with spells in jail. They also include converts, often with similar backgrounds. Violent religious extremism is for these people an escape from failure, criminality and complexity. It gives misfits a new glamorous identity, and often money they have never been able to make honestly, or even dishonestly. It hardly takes a Freud to see elements of self-hatred in these vicious acts of violence against people like themselves – or like their unconverted selves. Hence the importance of prison as a recruiting ground, in which no-hopers are offered a crude version of a religion offering quasi-gang membership, a caricature of masculine comradeship, a feeling of superiority (not least over women), and, in extreme cases, an outlet for grave sociopathic impulses, including by suicidal apotheosis. For some extremists, of more respectable social background and some educational attainments, fundamentalism even offers an excuse to break with the conservative trammels of their own families and communities.

This is not to suggest that terrorism is essentially a social or psychological phenomenon. It is of course an aspect of international and domestic politics, and certain kinds of government policy – most obviously banning ‘Islamic dress’ or bombing jihadis – makes it more likely that a country will become a target of terrorism. But the foot soldiers – the dupes – of those directing terrorist campaigns do fit particular social patterns. This doubtless helps us to understand individual motivation and perhaps helps to identify those who pose a danger. Unfortunately, there are a great many of them. Alarmingly, 60 percent of the French prison population is Muslim.

We might well regret certain failures of integration – but which policies are the right ones? – but even the most successful imaginable integration policy would still leave enough angry, disaffected and psychologically disturbed people to provide the cannon-fodder of terrorism. Last Friday’s events showed that a handful of people with easily available weapons can turn a whole country upside down. Alas, the only response seems to be increased and sustained vigilance. This may wreck the Schengen area. It may mean that we can only feel free to continue our ordinary lives under increased state surveillance. All the more reason to ensure that our laws give adequate powers to the State, but also to ensure that those powers can only be used in cases of true necessity.


Professor Robert Tombs

Robert Tombs is Professor of French History at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of St John’s College. He is co-editor of Briefings for Britain and his publications include The English and Their History (2014) and, with Isabelle Tombs, That Sweet Enemy: The British and the French from the Sun King to the Present (2006). His Politeia publications include The State, National Identity and Schools (2017, with New Direction) and Triggering Article 50, Courts, Government and Parliament (2017).

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