Polemics no use

- First published in the Australian 12 January 2015

IN the wake of the Islamist terrorist killings in Paris, let’s get a few things straight.

The pen is not really mightier than the sword. That’s just a nice line picked up from an old book. Napoleon Bonaparte isn’t a huge figure in global history because he crafted fine words or drew clever caricatures.

Journalists, essayists and cartoonists don’t keep us safe in our beds at night; our security apparatus, laws and police do.

And our society’s norms, neighbours watching out for each other, they help protect us. They are sustained, to a point, by those words and pictures mentioned above, but in the end they can also fall back on the muscle of the state.

Australia is not “under siege” from Islamic terrorism. There is no more “existential” threat from terrorism than from, say, car accidents.

The “values of the West” are not in danger. Not from this anyway. Maybe, eventually, from the Asian century.

The events in France were shocking (though for context see northern Nigeria) but they’re hardly in the “I never thought this would happen” category. We know that quite a few people around the world yearn to perpetrate such horrors in western capital cities. They generally can’t, so settle for a crowded market near them.

And maybe I’ve consumed too much television fiction, but I assume that in many countries, including Australia and France, people do sit around making plans to carry out mass killings.

I just also assume they are usually thwarted by security apparatuses, or someone dobs them in, or they have second thoughts, decide it’s not really warranted or too much of a hassle. But not always. Not in Sydney last month and, with a greater repercussions, in Paris last week.

Four Jewish people were killed in an apparently coordinated incident soon afterwards, but the identity of the main target in Paris, staff at the magazine Charlie Hebdo, injects free-speech into the interpretation of this atrocity. And nothing gets the rhetorical juices running in the mainstream media and those who rotate around it more than free speech.

It’s “Mill” this,”Voltaire” that. “Values” get a good run. We must not give in!

But there really are few philosophical questions at stake. Murder was against the law last week and is this week. This is not some sort of “defining moment”.

As with the Martin Place siege last month, the search for heretics began immediately. Any person in the media who didn’t respond appropriately is named and shamed. Most abuse is directed not at the actual perpetrators, but media identities deemed progressive, particularly, in this country, the ABC.

“Appeasers” and “apologists”, apparently. Because they’ve been too “tolerant”, too eager to not offend. What we should all do instead is hurl gratuitous insults at the quarter of the world who are Muslims; it will toughen them up.

I think that’s it. It is difficult to discern what these angry folks are actually saying, because when you ask them to reveal what’s beneath the slogan they um and ah. They operate from the gut. It’s all emotion, air-punching, with little structured reason.

Culture war fodder.

Some combatants seem to believe this is an ideological contest, that we must be vigilant in defending our values. Continually insist that my ideology is better than yours and we will win this argument. But that mistakes the world for a debating society.

Societies aren’t peaceful because they contain total unanimity about values. There is, instead, a broad consensus that keeps, in the vast majority of people, some instincts at bay. Backed up by (and I’m sorry to keep bringing this in) state coercion.

A large number, possibly a majority, of Australians, believe convicted murderers should be executed. But they don’t act on it.

It’s not realistic to expect every single Muslim living in, say, Australia to agree in their heart of hearts that people who insult the Prophet should not die. The best we can hope for, in the medium term, is that for those who do believe that, it remains at the theoretical level only, like many religious tenets.

Yes, if you come to our country, you obey our laws. Bloody oath.

And the disenfranchised and alienated will always be with us. Problems in this world are never eradicated, just (hopefully) minimised.

In the meantime, everyone’s an essayist. Let’s let the “defend our values” wannabe Christopher Hitchenses get their polemic rocks off. In the short term they are more part of the problem than the solution, but eventually they’ll tire and move their lovingly-crafted words to something else.

But when it comes to the threat of Islamic terrorism, I’m more interested in what the experts have to say. And our governments and agencies.

The parameters in which our arms of government operate, the trade-off between security and privacy, will always be contested. (You may have gathered I don’t particularly sit at the “libertarian” end of this spectrum.)

But I suspect the security pointyheads would want us to continue our daily lives and not behave as if we are under siege.

I may be wrong, but I don’t think they would recommend we pick needless fights with people on buses, or go out of our way to offend members of minority groups in some Utopian desensitising project.

Most of all, they would want us to keep it in proportion.

Be, I suppose, alert but not alarmed.