This essay was originally written in response to the terrorist attacks of February 2015 in Copenhagen. The subject is depressingly evergreen.
Reality as we know it is becoming repetitious. There has been another terrorist attack in a European capital. Once again an artist has been targeted. Once again an entire people have been attacked. The horror that invaded the pleaceful streets of Copenhagen last week came a mere month after the massacre of cartoonists and writers and shoppers in the office of a newspaper and a Jewish supermarket in Paris.
That attack – one which slaughtered the agents of satire at Charlie Hebdo and the innocents of a particular Paris shop – shocked the world, which came together in support of the fallen. It looked as if terror and nihilism and fascism would not be allowed to win. It seemed for a brief, shining moment that the liberal democracies might, in the aftermath of this mass-murder, finally find their voices. But then we in the West became nervous; we had second thoughts; and some within our societies have embraced the fake moralism of ‘mitigating factors’.
The cartoonists were racist, it was alleged. They weren’t engaged in ‘proper’ satire: satire which punched down rather than up, and hit only those whom the critics disdained. They were needlessly offensive, unnecessarily provocative, uncouth – and somehow, even a little deserving. As for the others, the shoppers and police officers, they were merely collateral damage.
This swift descent from unity into discord played into the hands of villains. Racists, real racists, began to use it as a demonstration of the rottenness of the mainstream, of the Left; Muslims, all of them innocent, were victimised and attacked and harassed; the terrorists, meanwhile, plotted their next atrocity. And so it came to pass: the capital city of Denmark, one of the most peaceable nations in the world, has borne witness to two acts of brutality and calculated violence. First, a meeting variously described as a debate on Islam or a free speech seminar was shot up. The target appears to have been Lars Vilks, an artist who has been on the receiving end of death threats and murder attempts after he drew cartoons of Muhammad in 2007. One person was killed and three others were injured.
After that commenced a manhunt, not unlike that which played out in front of news cameras and the watchful eyes of the world in Paris last month. The second act of this grim performance was almost a mirror image of the Parisian outrage. A place of Jewish importance was attacked – this time it was a synagogue; one man, a volunteer guard, was murdered.
Let us be clear: the people who have been slain and maimed in this attack did not deserve their fates. They were not asking for it, and nor did their actions in any way warrant what has happened to them. The only person who deserves any blame for what has transpired is the suspect, and he is dead, shot by police.
But already masochists crawl out of the woodwork, insisting that, like that which happened to the murdered staff at Charlie Hebdo, this attack is the result of provocation.
Vilks escaped death last week, but he cannot similarly avoid the hundreds if not thousands of character assassinations which will shortly appear in the press. He has had to put up with them for nearly ten years; they will not cease now. But the worst part, the most painful and dispiriting element of all of this, is that these critiques are written by liberal-minded people. Liberal-minded people who just happen to be defending medieval blasphemy law and those who seek to enforce it across Europe.
This is masochism. Self-destructive and murderous masochism.
And more than that, some of these critics – liberal-minded though they may be – seek to govern future behaviour in a similar vein. Hugh Muir, a man of impeccable liberal credentials, writes in the Guardian (a newspaper similarly inclined) that in this regard “we must guard against the understandable temptation to be provocative”. That seems dangerously illiberal to me.
In the aftermath of 9/11, of course, there were tales of posh dinner parties at which the chattering classes gathered together to agree on how the United States of America had got what it deserved. I have always thought, and maintain, that this was an exaggeration. But the spirit expressed in those anecdotes remains alive in articles such as Muir’s. When citizens of enlightened and free nations are told to rein in their rights of free speech in order to avoid inciting their own murder, in this case at the hands of fascists – Islamic or otherwise – one really does get the sense of what the late Christopher Hitchens once articulated in response to a slobbering question on jihadism. ‘There you have it, ladies and gentleman,’ he said. ‘You see how far the termites have spread, and how long and well they’ve dined.’
Years have passed since he said those words. But the nature of the enemy has not changed – and nor, tragically, has its target. And the Western liberals, those who think themselves too enlightened to annoy and aggravate a terrorist, have only aided the further spread of those civilisation-sapping termites. We can do better than that. And we must do so – for the sake of ourselves; for the sake of our values; and for the sake of the world, which needs liberalism, proper liberalism, more than seemingly ever before.