France is still in shock. On January 10 and 11, millions of people around the world rallied to express their outrage after the murder of 17 innocent people – some because they worked at the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, others because they were Jews, not to mention the policemen – who all fell to the bullets of these young French men with known links to fundamental Islamist armed groups. Emotions will no doubt remain very high, even after the victims’ funerals and the tribute they will be paid.
But already, we need to start thinking: “Now what? What shall we do?”
The answers will be diverse, even contradictory. Some will want to focus on short term “security,” others will want to emphasize the need for social cohesion to address why these young people get drawn into terrorism. Viewing security and solidarity as alternates would be a mistake. Both are necessary. And security must be exercised lawfully.
It would be presumptuous to give prescriptions for how to stitch up the fabric of French society, torn for decades, which probably explains the vulnerability of some young people – there seem to be more and more – to fanatic talk. But if we want to prevail, we should avoid remedies that would worsen the disease to start off with.
The government needs to stick to human rights principles and not give its opponents the irrefutable argument of its own inconsistency. Prime Minister Manuel Valls was right to say that we should not fight terrorism with reactionary laws, as the United States did in 2001.
We need to be vigilant about what might be proposed: suggestions about prison segregation or censorship of violent images on the Internet could undermine basic protections on detention and freedom of expression. Other proposals go further. The latest French counterterrorism law, passed in November, contains several provisions that infringe on human rights.
French society should not accept any roll back on fundamental freedoms: freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom of information, or freedom of religion. Otherwise, the spirit of unity and solidarity that burst out over the last days will vanish.
The government must be committed to respecting the values that France claims to embody. At the historic mobilization of January 10 and 11, the citizens demonstrated their ability to respond collectively and peacefully to senseless violence. We must learn to fight such violence with the weapons of democracy: the law, freedom, education, solidarity, respect, and justice.