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What separates us from IS

  • 19 November 2015

The mass murder of unarmed civilians carried out by terrorists in Paris last weekend was appalling. Whether considered as an act of war or of terror, it was indefensible. It left over 100 people dead, many more injured, and families devastated. It embedded terror into French urban life. It needs a response.

The initial response of Malcolm Turnbull, like that of many other international leaders, did all that was possible. He expressed horror at the killings, sympathy with the victims, solidarity with the French people in their grief and outrage, and defiance in the face of terror.

In this he echoed the football fans who sang the Marseillaise as they left the imperilled football stadium. It was a song of battle undertaken and of commitment to victory against terrorism.

The themes of war against terrorism and victory have dominated commentary on the killings. In light of the fact that the war against terror was the seedbed in which IS grew, they demand serious reflection. We should ask precisely what our enemy is attacking, what therefore must be defended, and what will be the signs of victory or defeat in the struggle.

These questions take us beyond military actions and political alliances to values. In the soundbites from his initial response, Turnbull made freedom the touchstone of the conflict. IS terrorists wish to destroy freedom, and particularly freedom of worship. Freedom is the value that defines France and its allies, and must be defended at all costs.

That account merits broader reflection. The three values that came to define the French Revolution, and so modern France, are Freedom, Equality and Fraternity. The history of Europe has subsequently been shaped by the tension between freedom and equality.

Communist regimes invoked equality in order to justify tyranny. Other states invoked freedom to justify the gross unfairness embedded in their institutions in order to allow the wealthy to maintain and amass wealth. In this case freedom signifies the unrestrained economic freedom of the competitive individual, often dignified by association with religious freedom and democratic forms of government.

In both visions of the world the forgotten triplet is fraternity: the idea that people of different faiths, convictions and racial origins can live harmoniously together, responsible to each other, and free to shape a society for the benefit of all. The challenge to Western politics since the French Revolution has been how to make space for fraternity when resolving the tension between liberty