Two questions about “something must be done” following the Paris attacks

17th November 2015

In the aftermath of the Paris atrocities there are demands for action: dropping bombs and air-strikes, shoot-to-kill policies, more use of special interrogation techniques (ie, torture), less freedom of movement, more intrusion and less privacy, more powers for the security services, and so on.

What seems to be a feature of many of these demands is that there is no attempt to explain the supposed cause-and-effect. It is almost as if the merit of the proposals is self-evident, a sign of virility: something bad has happened, and so something must be done in return.

But each such demand raises two issues: one of practicality, and one of principle. That is: would the proposal actually help, and does the proposal conflict with the supposed principles, and way of life, we are presumably seeking to defend.

In terms of practice: just doing “something” does not mean you are doing the right thing.  It may make no difference, or it may make things worse.  In terms of dealing with terrorism, one false move can cause problems for a generation.  The history of dealing with the terrorist problems in Northern Ireland is packed with examples of things being “done” which just caused greater difficulties later on.

This is not to suggest doing nothing; just that what needs to be done needs to be thought-through.

So: will what is being called for actually work and, if so, how?

In terms of principle: there appears to be a genuine risk that we could end up undermining – even subverting – the very principles of personal autonomy, the rule of law and freedom of expression which the West can and should be defending and asserting.

These liberal principles are not absolute, and they can be interfered with for reasons of the greater good; but they should not be discarded casually either. The point is whether any serious thought is being put into the required balancing exercise.

So: how will what is being called for interfere with the fundamental values of civilization we are seeking to protect and, if so, has the right balance really been struck?

It sometimes seems that some of those wanting to drop bombs and order air-strikes, to deploy shoot-to-kill policies and to use more torture, to limit freedom of movement, and to intrude more and to give more powers for the security services, do not need a reason for their demands, and still less do they require any evidence as to the efficacy of what they propose; they just want a pretext.

Asking about whether a proposed action is really practical, and about whether a proposed action needlessly interferes with civilized values, is not a check to things being “done”.  It is not an excuse for doing nothing.

Answering such questions instead will tend to mean that the right things are done:  things that work, and things which mean liberal values are being taken seriously.

In essence: “something can be done” is always better than “something must be done”.


To get alerts for my new posts at Jack of Kent and the FT, and anywhere else, please submit your email address in the “Subscribe” box at the top of this page.

8 thoughts on “Two questions about “something must be done” following the Paris attacks”

  1. How I agree with you.
    All the terror rhetoric also helps keep Tories firmly in control. ie you wouldn’t be safe with Corbyn in power, we need to curb HRA to ensure safety of all etc etc.

  2. Under ‘practicalities’ you could restate your position as ‘evidence-based things’, yet it seems clear that those who call for more ‘things’ don’t actually know if the ‘things’ will work or not. It seems more important to make a noise, to do something, than to do the right thing.

    As it happens, there is a short article/book review in the New Scientist this week about torture. The evidence is that torture doesn’t work, except in the minds of the torturers. Further, it indicates just how easy it is to suggest false confessions to the accused.

  3. I would add to the first question “… and is it sustainable?”

    There will be armed police at the England v France football game tonight at Wembley – I can’t see any way that this is any more than a token gesture. We almost certainly wont be seeing armed police at Premier League games this weekend; it’d cost too much, and there probably aren’t enough of them anyway.

  4. If The Intercept is to be believed then up to 90% of those killed by drone strike aren’t even the intended target, and thousands have been killed in the last five years alone. Take the number of dead from the Paris attack and multiply it a number of times and you have the number of deaths that have been caused IN OUR NAME. Innocent blood is already being spilled, BY US and yet we’re being told more must be done?


    Personally speaking when it comes to the middle east I’m left with the impression that any action – either in support or against those in power – will just end up making the situation worse, regardless of the intent. We tried helping the insurgents in Afghanistan against the USSR – we end up with 9/11 and a new generation of terrorists. We start by helping Saddam only to feel compelled to get rid of him later on and this ultimately lead to the rise of ISIS.

    Sometimes it seems like ANY action will just make the situation worse.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *