Just over three years later al-Qaeda killed 2,996 people in one of the most dramatic terrorist attacks in history, one made all the more spectacular because it was seen almost as it happened on television. The 9/11 attack was as gripping as it was terrifying. A little over a decade later, and after hundreds more lethal terrorist attacks, Anders Behring Breivik, a Norwegian extremist killed 77 people, some in Oslo, others at a youth summer camp on the island of Utøya.
After the initial horror and anger in Omagh, and right across these islands, after the tears were no longer everyday, the Republican outrage re-energised efforts, through the democratic process, to try to consolidate the new but uncertain peace in the North. A divided society understood in a new, undeniable way that change and concession could not be deferred again if terrorism was to be defeated by being made irrelevant and impossible. The atrocity did not have legitimacy but it had, and thankfully has, a real consequence.
Then Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg responded to the Breivik massacre by challenging all of those who would threaten his society — and its core values of tolerance and inclusion — with the simplest and most powerful weapon: “More democracy.” There could hardly be a more forceful, effective refutation of zealotry .
The Bush presidency’s response to 9/11 was tragically more Old Testament and destructively simplistic. Terror was inflicted on societies that were unfortunate enough to have Muslim extremists in their midst. Innocence was dismissed as an irrelevance. Rocket attack after rocket attack killed as indiscriminately as the 9/11 outrages. Examples were made. Brutish, gung-ho militarism was the inarticulate, ineffective but bloody response. Guantanamo Bay detention camp, one of the greatest affronts to the principles of modern liberal democracy, was established and, despite promises from President Obama, is still grinding decency into terrorist recruits. Torture became routine, the American government was repeatedly lied to by the CIA. Civil liberties have been cast aside in one of the most sinister and Orwellian regressions of modern times — homeland security, a blank cheque for state-sanctioned terror and criminality that has usurped America’s founding principles.
A little over a decade later hundreds of thousands have died in the blind, insecure whirlwind unleashed by a superpower struck by fear but nothing has been resolved much less set right. Some $3 trillion, the kind of figure that could change millions of lives very much for the better, has been wasted. America, tragically, has proved that terror is a weapon but not an ideology.
The North’s peace process, and Norway’s stability, have shown how a refusal to be cowed, a refusal to deviate from the principles of courageous decency and democracy always prevail. America’s assertion of its power has squandered that power and alienated millions of moderate Muslims.
If America is to be criticised for unintentionally encouraging extremism then we must be equally self critical.
Europe’s reaction to immigrants — refugees really — trying to escape anarchy right across north Africa has been less than exemplary and much much less than should be expected from a Christian or post-Christian society. Thousands have died on that terrible journey yet that avoidable tragedy gets only a fraction of the coverage of the Paris atrocity. There are no protests in Europe’s capitals about families drowning in the Mediterranean after they have been abandoned on obsolete cattle ships by people traffickers. The international community’s failure to curb Israel’s worst excesses play an undeniable part in hardening positions too.
The lessons for France, Europe and the next society to be attacked seem obvious even if they require a fortitude not always abundant at these moments. It requires a certain fortitude too to respond with dignity and respect to the suggestion from Dr Ali Selim of the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland in Dublin that he would take legal advice if Irish newspapers published the Charlie Hebdo cartoons that made fun of Islam. Free speech, even if it is offensive, is non- negotiable in this society and Dr Selim must accept that. If he finds it unacceptable then his options are obvious but limited.
The Paris attack was outrageous and appalling. By our response we either isolate the terrorists or encourage their successors. It is that simple and that complex.