Terror in Paris leads to a rush to judgment and plays into Isil's hands
Published 17/11/2015 | 02:30
Global headlines following Friday night's massacre in Paris proclaimed that the French people remained "defiant" in the wake of the atrocity, but the truth is that they are not defiant, they are afraid - and with good reason.
On Sunday evening, as 'Channel 4 News' broadcast live from a memorial for the victims in central Paris, at the Place de la Republique, hundreds of panicked people began running from the scene. There were reports a firecracker had been let off, or that a candle had started a small fire in the square, but whatever innocuous event prompted the false alarm the result was mass fear and hysteria.
Around the same time, ITV was filming in a Parisian restaurant, ironically interviewing locals who said they would not give in to fear. Suddenly, there was chaos, with people screaming and turning over tables in their rush to flee. One man threw a table at a window in his desperation to get to safety. In the confusion, the TV camera was overturned and when it was righted, about 30 seconds later, scores of people could be seen cowering behind a counter, too terrified to come out.
It remains unclear what triggered the panic, but ITV reporter Tom Brady said "it took about 10 minutes for everyone to accept there was no gunman and nerves to calm a bit".
While the attacks on 'Charlie Hebdo' and a Jewish deli earlier this year, as assaults on free speech and religion, were imbued with a certain kind of twisted logic, the randomness of the weekend's indiscriminate carnage is more frightening to contemplate because it makes one thing clear: no one and nowhere is safe.
If Isil was interested in striking political targets, it would have waited until next month to mount an assault on Paris, when more than 80 world leaders, including US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron, are due in the city for a global climate summit.
However, given the increased security that will be in place for that event, it instead preferred to gun down civilians in soft targets - spraying bullets at wheelchair users at a small concert venue and diners enjoying a meal with friends at a local restaurant.
Unable to reach the politicians who make contentious foreign policy decisions with their bullets or their bombs, it is clear that Isil considers everyone resident in Western countries - no matter what their age or nationality - a legitimate target.
In these fraught situations, when confusion reigns and tensions are running high, there is an onus on those with the ability to frame the debate, and influence public opinion, to act responsibly instead of using incendiary language, or baseless supposition, to stoke fear and panic.
Sadly, in the media's rush to be first with information, and politicians' eagerness to be seen to be acting swiftly and decisively to curb any threat, there has been scant evidence of any awareness that rumour and innuendo, once out there, are very difficult to expunge.
Given the barbarity of Friday's attack, and the febrile, fearful atmosphere that persists in Paris, it's easy to understand the clamour for answers, but the rush to fill the information void over the weekend has resulted in the casual maligning of innocent people's characters.
While news posted by anonymous accounts on social media is routinely derided as unverified and unreliable, the reporting of the events in Paris by some traditional media outlets has proven to be just as untrustworthy over the weekend.
For instance, the BBC, that supposed denizen of responsible journalism, reported that an Egyptian man, Waled Abdelrazak, was one of the attackers. His passport was found near the site of one of the bombings and because he had a Muslim-sounding name, an assumption was made that he was a terrorist.
He wasn't. He was one of the victims.
Separately, a major Spanish daily newspaper printed a picture of a Canadian Sikh man, Veerender Jubbal, on its front page, alleging he was one of the terrorists. Given he has never even been to France, he was also entirely innocent.
Nevertheless, he was branded a terrorist on the front-page of a newspaper a continent away simply because a picture he posted online had been photoshopped and a Koran and a suicide vest superimposed onto the image. Incredibly, the newspaper fell for the hoax and printed the doctored photograph, without even doing to most cursory kind of fact-checking to ensure the information was correct.
While the reputations of individual people have been casually traduced by segments of the media, the discovery of a Syrian passport close to the body of a suicide bomber has also been used as a propaganda tool by right-wing politicians intent on disparaging hundreds of thousands of refugees as terrorists and criminals.
For some, the discovery erased the memory of the little Syrian toddler, Alan Kurdi, lying dead on a Turkish beach as a symbol of the plight of refugees and instead replaced it with an image of a suicide bomber.
Before the authorities could definitively confirm the identity of the terrorist, or even whether the passport was genuine or a forgery, politicians all over the world, from the Prime Minister of Poland to the Governor of Alabama, were using the discovery as a pretext to renege on their commitments to resettle Syrian refugees.
Lost in this myopic rush to vilify Syrian men, women and children risking life and limb to flee war and persecution, much of it perpetrated by Isil, is any inquiry into why a terrorist would choose to carry identification documents on his person before blowing himself up?
The truth is that Isil has, on numerous occasions, condemned refugees fleeing their barbarous caliphate and desperately wants Syrians to remain living under their autocratic rule. If Western nations turn against refugees, refusing to offer them asylum, then they are playing directly into Isil's hands.
While xenophobic politicians whip up fear about refugees coming to Europe, the French attacks have revealed that the threat to Western countries is much closer than we like to think. All of those so far identified as having been involved in the attacks are either French or Belgian citizens - meaning we don't need to import terrorists into Europe, because they're already here.
The job facing the security services in tracking down these small cells of terrorists is undoubtedly an enormous one, but we must not let the threat posed by these murderous thugs destroy the democratic values - liberty, equality and fraternity - that we hold so dear.
Everywhere it goes, Isil tries to drive a wedge between communities - between Sunni and Shia in the Middle East and between Muslims and Christians in the West. They must not succeed.