Tributes to the victims in Republic Square. Demotix/ Nesrine Cheikh Ali. All rights reserved.Like many people I spent the evening of the Paris attacks, as well as the weekend, in a haze of shock and sadness. I was shocked by the atrocities, annoyed by the social media posts about the alleged selective sympathy (which was upsetting their selective sympathy), but mostly I was worried about the inevitable overreaction by France and other European Union (EU) member states.
I had never believed that there was a fundamental ideological difference between the western states that opposed the Iraq invasion and those that supported it. Countries like Belgium and France just had made a different strategic calculation and had hidden that under a more popular liberal democratic veneer.
As I hoped that France would follow Norway after Breivik rather than the US after 9/11, I knew they would have the same knee-jerk response as the Americans, egged on by hysterical masses and opportunistic elites. Still, I hadn’t expected it to be this bad.
Obviously, it makes sense that terrorist attacks are followed by an immediate rise in the threat level and the activity of security forces of the hit state. The problem is that the “emergency” measures are often extended for a significantly longer period and that there is little political or public debate and oversight over the effectiveness of these measures. Political leaders scare the people and press into submission with terrifying apocalyptic scenarios.
Take the example of French premier Manuel Valls, who warned that “chemical or biological weapons” might be used on French soil and that “no possibility can be excluded.” As so often, no evidence, beyond the self-serving “indications” on the basis of secret intelligence, was provided for this outlandish claim.
In Belgium the media for once came together across linguistic divides, following requests from the state to (self-)censor information about the security operations so as to not help the terrorists. In a painful expression of solidarity, citizens decided to post cat memes on social media, rather than criticize the media’s decision or critically follow the state operations.
With the exception of a few targeted arrests in the first week, including a raid in a suburb of Paris in which one of the suspects blew himself up, the hundreds of security operations across Europe have mainly harassed people already under suspicion, in a feeble attempt to show the people that the state is in control of the situation.
Almost all arrested people were released within days, despite the “emergency powers” in Brussels and France, and were left wondering whether there is any other feasible reason than their ethnicity and faith that they were singled out. And as happened after the introduction of the PATRIOT ACT in the US, the French state has started to use its emergency powers to arrest, curtail, and harass people completely unconnected to the Paris attacks, such as environmental activists in the run-up to the great Climate Change Summit (COP21) in Paris.
The aftermath of the Paris attacks is a reminder of how easily people are scared into accepting far-reaching “emergency” measures and how easily these measures migrate from the original group to new, very different, groups. We know from responses to earlier attacks, most notably 9/11, that the emergency measures are never really temporary.
While the worst infractions upon liberal democracy are later amended, but often only after significant legal and political pressure, the state never returns to exactly the same situation as before the terrorist attacks. Each attack weakens liberal democracy, and the real, long-term damage is not done by the terrorists, but by the counter-terrorists. Each attack weakens liberal democracy, and the real, long-term damage is not done by the terrorists, but by the counter-terrorists.
It is from within the political and state elites that authoritarian measures are pushed through, under the cloak of fear and outrage, even if many of the measures are unrelated to the attacks – think about the REAL ID Act that followed the 9/11 attacks, despite the fact that the attackers had a multitude of (fake) passports, or the call for the closing of the EU borders, even though almost all identified terrorists were EU born and raised.
There are many reasons why Europe’s citizens accept these infringements upon their own rights. Many people believe that they won’t affect them, as they are not Muslims or non-white (or whomever else is the identified target). The fact that these laws are always applied much more broadly once they are on the books, including to white middle class people (such as most of the environmentalists), should make them rethink this short-sighted, self-centered approach.
The confusion and fear of the public are even more important. For some these wear off quickly, but often the damage is then already done. Moreover, as soon as the next terrorist attack or threat appears, and is hyped in the media, they will again happily accept the “emergency” measures, desperate for state competency and societal security. The problem is that neither truly exists, at least not in a complete and unproblematic form.
The two major lies that feed counter-terrorism policies that significantly weaken liberal democracy, are that states can be 100 percent competent and societies can be 100 percent safe. As we know from decades of state repression, even the most democratic states make (many) mistakes, ranging from the arrests and convictions of innocent people to rogue state programs like COINTELPRO in the US. Ironically, while the costs of counter-terrorism programs are relatively clear, even though media and politicians mostly ignore them, the benefits are murky at best.
At the same time, no society, not even within a dictatorship, is ever completely safe from terrorism. Ironically, while the costs of counter-terrorism programs are relatively clear, even though media and politicians mostly ignore them, the benefits are murky at best. In most cases, the goals of the programs are so vague that it is impossible to objectively evaluate them.
When is the “war on terror” won? Is the PATRIOT ACT successful because there has been no new 9/11? And even when the goals would be clear, security protocol prevents an objective evaluation of the claimed successes – you know, the “prevented terror attacks” that make the news whenever budgets or laws need to be renewed.
Within the liberal democratic paradigm the state is not considered inherently bad or good. Rather, it holds that a democratic state can function well if, and only if, its citizens limit the powers of the state and keep a check on its leaders. Ironically, as political distrust and dissatisfaction are at all-time highs in many European democracies, the vast majority of people are willing to give unprecedented powers to the leaders and states they don’t like and trust.
All because they buy into the illusion of a competent state than can ensure full security. To save liberal democracy from slowly but steadily destroying itself from within, we have to let go of this dangerous illusion, however uncomfortable it may be. Only if we accept the reality that no (democratic) state is completely competent and safe, are we able to protect our liberal democracy from both the terrorists and counter-terrorists.
This article is an abridged version of the epilogue of my forthcoming book On Extremism and Democracy in Europe (Routledge, 2016), a collection of my popular writings on the far right, populism, Euroscepticism, and liberal democracy in Europe.