The morning after the murders, the people of Paris queued up to open their veins. In the days after terrorists from the apocalyptic cult calling itself Islamic State had slaughtered 129 people in Paris and 43 people in Beirut, ordinary Parisians queued for hours to give blood, even though the number of donors outstripped the number of wounded.
Of all the illogical responses to great violence, the impulse to give blood is perhaps the most sweetly symbolic. Terrified human animals come forward to offer, quite literally, the contents of their hearts, because they have no idea how else to help.
Grief makes people do strange things. Sometimes they go out and get drunk and pick fights. Sometimes they hurt themselves. Sometimes they start baking hundreds of cupcakes because they can’t think of what else to do. At moments of cultural shock, these behaviours have collective equivalents. Frightened, angry people are capable of extreme compassion, moments of breathtaking tenderness and responsibility, and they are also capable of being utterly vile to one another. Blaming, condemning, calling for more violence. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks on Paris and Beirut, we have seen all of that and worse.
The two most dangerous words in politics are “us” and “them”. In the past few days, calls for unity on every side have been accompanied by blame and implications that “we” had it coming. “We” brought it on ourselves. Rational analysis of the consequences of 14 years of military intervention in the Middle East has been lost in the scramble to point fingers at anyone who might possibly be responsible. It’s the students’ fault. It’s the feminists’ fault. It’s liberalism. It’s Islam. It’s British multiculturalism. It’s French assimilationism.
On the right, there were instant calls for more air strikes, more surveillance, more boots on the ground. The bodies of slaughtered French citizens had yet to be buried when Ukip’s leader, Nigel Farage, accused all Muslims of having “divided loyalties” and insisted that Britain close its borders. Republican leaders in the US demanded that their nation cease accepting Syrian refugees. Meanwhile, and more forgivably, people on the left have criticised one another for not seeming to be equally shocked by the murders in Beirut, as if the correct response to the death of hundreds of innocents were a scramble for the moral high ground.
I was pretty confident in my own moral high ground, convinced of my capacity to be equally moved by the slaughter of innocents from any culture and community on earth. But then those despicable bastards had to go and attack a gig. The single bloodiest attack in Paris was at the Bataclan concert hall, which happened to be hosting a rock band called Eagles of Death Metal. As such, I’ve spent the past three days considering the practicalities of summoning a world legion of vengeful rock music fans to put aside our differences and take out Isis.
Forgive me for trying to make you smile, but I’m also being serious. A tiny, twisted part of me actually thinks this sounds like a great idea. There is a reason why people in deep grief or profound shock are advised not to make big life decisions, such as whether or not to go to war. They have a tendency to act impulsively on the basis of feelings that are perfectly acceptable up until the point that they are acted upon.
I have no interest in policing the purity of people’s feelings. Feelings are not rational. People going through hell, or even watching it come to a city they love, are allowed to feel whatever they like. They are even allowed to feel, for a petty and furious moment while watching the news, that abandoning millions of Isis’s innocent Arab victims might be worth it if it saved one more European life. What is unacceptable is to behave for a single instant as if this were objectively the case.
What is despicable, moreover, is to exploit the grief of others to further an agenda of prejudice and hatred. If anyone might be forgiven for going on a regrettable racist rant in these circumstances, it would be the relatives of victims in Paris and Beirut, but the family members of those slaughtered have responded with a compassion that is humbling. Charlie Hebdo, the satirical magazine whose journalists were slaughtered by Islamic extremists in January, led with a cover declaring that ISIS might have guns, but France has champagne, so really, who’s winning here? By contrast, Donald Trump is calling for Mosques to be shuttered in the United States, and the Daily Mail is accompanying calls for a total freeze on immigration with cartoons comparing refugees to rats.
This sort of cowardly, craven response to violence appears to be what passes for courage in the logic of modern conservatism. But courage is not about pretending not to be afraid, or lashing out to make yourself feel more powerful. Courage is about behaving with decency and principle no matter how scared you are. Courage is about not giving in to fear, or letting fear turn you into a lesser version of yourself. The most immediate victory for Isis would be a reversal of Europe’s softening stance on refugees. Tolerance, openness, a commitment to human dignity: these are exactly the things that Isis does not want to see, and it has surely been watching.
These unbelievable bastards aren’t worried about the prospect of more air strikes, more civilian casualties, more callousness on the borders of Europe, more security clampdowns at its heart. They are looking forward to all of that. They’re probably rubbing their hands at the xenophobic attacks taking place right now across the continent, at the conservative calls for crackdowns on Muslims, at the imminent passing of further surveillance legislation that has proved dubiously effective in catching terrorists but extremely efficient in curbing the individual freedoms of ordinary civilians. What Isis wants is a holy war between two violently homogeneous civilisations, and the only way it will get that is if the West starts to behave like one.
The unity that terrorists fear is not unity of opinion or outlook. It is unity in principle. It is commitment to the principle that every human life is of value, that pleasure and diversity and liberty are not to be thrown away the instant some psychopath opens fire in a restaurant. We cannot say for certain that opening Europe’s borders would not allow a few terrorists to cross over into our cities along with hundreds of thousands of needy innocents. What we can say for certain is that closing those borders would allow the terrorists into our hearts.
Kindness, diversity and decency are weapons that can only be brought to one battlefield, and it happens to be the one territory that Isis cannot afford to lose. It is the territory of the collective human imagination, and it has no borders at all. We are allowed to be shocked. We are allowed to grieve. But if we allow ourselves to be provoked into bigotry, cruelty and intolerance, then the terrorists will have won. It’s the only way they ever get to win.
Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.