There are only a few words (if any) that can describe the shock created by the attack in Paris. Yet this should not leave us speechless. Its very nature and motivation requires that we put words on the frustration and shock it generated. And its possible repetition requires that we address the question it raises.
The risk of a terrorist attack driven by religious considerations on European soil is not new. This risk materialised several times in the last decade: Madrid’s Atocha rail station in 2004, in London’s public transports in 2005, to name but a few. Yet, what lessons have we drawn from these? The only – very poor indeed – answer has been a reinforcement of European countries’ national security schemes. Not only does it often prove useless, but it also does nothing to improve society’s resilience.
We seem to have acknowledged that the value-system on which European societies are based is under threat and that the risk of a deliberate and destabilising attack on its foundations exists but, we, as organised communities and open societies, have so far failed to produce a meaningful strategy to hedge against this risk and protect our civilisational foundations.
I have no claim to exhaustivity but I believe that such a strategy should include the following elements. First, we ought to examine the roots of religious radicalism. That is, try to understand why, at some point in time and in some geographical areas, groups of individuals have developed a hatred view of Western values and institutions. However unjustifiable this blind bloodshed may be, the West may hold some responsibility in the wounds that are inflicted.
Second, we ought to have an open and more regular discussion on our value-system, our identity. Too often, the debate about them is dismissed on the grounds that the values on which the society is based are obvious and self-explanatory. This is however far from true and holding an explicit debate on them contributes to a healthy functioning of communities.
Third, we need to commit to the unconditional defence these values. This, however, does not mean that our value-system is a rigid set, proof to external influences. It only signifies that we shall never accept that it be modified through deliberate external attacks. We are sovereign, and sole legitimate to alter the nature of our value-system. It must be made clear that the only tolerated means of interaction is dialogue and mutual understanding. Any other way ought to be crushed. Hence, we must unambiguously stand against any obscurantist religious veil. It must also be clear that against any act of violence targeted at our civilisational identity, we will stand. But it must also be unambiguous that we will stand against any form of stigmatisation and marginalisation of specific communities.
Defining such a strategy is the best way to assure every member of society that he belongs to a group that is prepared and resilient enough to withstand shocks such as the one created by terrorist attacks. Hence, there would be no need for individuals to retrench in a fear that is to our democratic societies what cancer is to a living body: a steadily and silently growing illness that eventually kills swiftly.