The secret of freedom lies in educating people, whereas the secret of tyranny is in keeping them ignorant.
Watching the last few days’ terrible and terrifying events unfold in Paris has been compulsive. The live filming of the siege on Friday seemed like an episode of Spiral, which made a welcome return to our screens last night. The shooting of 10 staff and associates at Charlie Hebdo and two police officers was shocking in its brutality, but also in the mundaneness with which armed terrorists were able to plan and execute such a terrible atrocity. Just like that.
You go to work like you do every other day, but today you don’t come home. Just like that.
The atrocity has prompted some outstanding journalism and leadership from newspapers, in particular. They always do cover such stories best, having the time and the keen sense of purpose with which to craft the right words. But perhaps, because it is the inky fingered lot whose freedom to express, to print all the news that’s fit to print, is so regularly threatened – sometimes by their own inability to adhere to the values of independence and non-bias which they maintain, matter so much – by regulation, by the removal of those rights, through owners’ patronage and personal proclivities; political interference; judicial tinkering.
I’ve read a lot that I’ve liked in Scottish newspapers since Wednesday. We are fortunate to have some fine journalists and writers working in our parts and our media culture would be lacking without them. Bravo et encore.
There has also been reflection and introspection about the nature of rights, the balance to be struck between and among rights and individuals’ right to exercise them. Put crudely, whose trumps who’s? The right of journalists and cartoonists to express themselves freely or the right of believers to worship their chosen faith free from intolerance and prejudice? One thing on which we can all agree – no one has the right to kill anyone else to assert their beliefs over any individual, community or society.
And while it is good to be reminded of the point of human rights and why they are vital and fundamental to the well-being of a country, must it always be through adversity? Who in the UK thinks now that rights don’t matter? Good. You might want to let your MP know then, as there’s a bill before Westminster proposing to remove our human rights and replace them with a bill of rights that creates a new constitutional framework for the UK. Whether it will allow us to continue to enjoy the same human rights as say, the French is as yet not clear.
Today France and indeed, Europe will come together in a show of solidarity, marking the murders in the way the French know best. By taking to the streets, exercising their collective freedom to assemble peaceably. Indeed, the populace will be aided and abetted in its efforts by the availability of free public transport and cut price travel from outwith Paris. Touché.
I am struck by the differences in how countries and societies display their public grief and demonstrate their shared sense of pain. After 7/7, plucky Britain and London kept calm and carried on. Everyone back to work, business as usual. How a country mourns publicly after such a catastrophic event which touches everyone directly and indirectly says a lot about its culture and its belief system.
And sometimes it takes a terrible happening to be reminded of what matters in and to a society. Liberté. Fraternité. Égalité.
I’m sure many French people have taken a moment or two this week to reflect on these values and what they mean in a 21st Century country. When your country has touchstone principles as powerful as this, it’s vital to keep them alive. Sadly, it often takes death to remind us to do so. And to remember what matters – truly matters – in our everyday lives. It does no harm for us all to reflect a little.
On some levels, Scotland’s independence referendum attempted to hold a discourse on who we are, what we believe in and where do we want to go. We all nodded – whatever side of the binary choice you ended up on – in agreement with notions of fairness and greater equality in our society.
In writing Generation Scot Y earlier this year, I analysed what young people in both camps were saying about their referendum choice. What mattered to them and how were they articulating that. The choice of language was remarkably similar: young Yessers talked a lot about better, about fairer, progressive, opportunity, democracy and future, while young No campaigners also talked a lot about opportunities, choice, future, rights and things being better. A common language then, if not purpose at that time.
And at the end of it all, now we are out the other side, where stands Scotland? What has become of all that yearning for better, fairer and opportunity in our future? Can we find away to make the purpose fit the language? And does anyone even want to? We’re One Scotland no doubt but surely it takes more than trite messaging and imagery to make it so.
We may wish to engage in a little schadenfreude and nod to the rise of the right in France and a level of racism, intolerance and prejudice that does not exist in Scotland as reasons why it could never happen here. But France is a much more multi-cultural country than we are: not only was a Muslim police officer gunned down by Islamist extremists, but it was a Muslim employee in a Jewish supermarket who protected other shoppers, including a child. France has its issues but there is also much to learn from a culture which aims to assimilate and adopt a melting-pot approach to immigration and where identities – as they are in so many other countries today – multi-dimensional.
And today, we will watch – yes, in solidarity – as a nation mourns, as a nation gathers to remind itself of its founding principles and of what truly matters to its society, its sense of self and its well-being. Je suis. Nous sommes.
We – I – will shed a tear and quietly, timidly ask how do we prevent this happening here – happening anywhere – again. As Dani Garavelli points out in an excellent opinion piece in today’s Scotland on Sunday, “days later, the indefensibility of the attack on Charlie Hebdo remains, but almost everything else is shadows and fog”.
We may wish to call on the wisdom of Robespierre in our search for some answers and a solution.