IN MY darker moments, I think that the main function of the news media is to protect us from novelty. When something really new and strange happens, what everyone wants is to connect it to things that have happened before, and thus fit it into their existing concepts about the world. Otherwise there’s nothing much except profanity or prayer.
The reaction to the Paris attacks displayed this tendency very clearly; so it’s hard to pick out what was new, but I will try. One technological improvement is that all the papers now do multimedia live-blog coverage.
It’s not nearly as satisfying for the writer as sitting down under a huge deadline to distil a couple of thousand words summarising what has happened. It’s more like continually skimming a stockpot as bits rise to the surface; but it does keep the reader up to date. I watched the first three hours or so, alternating between Le Monde and The Guardian’s coverage.
The French coverage was really excellent and heartbreaking. Unsurprisingly, the French papers seemed to have wider and quicker access to cameraphone videos from the scene. Their jerky confused immediacy was more effective at conveying shock and bewilderment, and the magnitude of what was happening, than anything framed more formally could be.
BECAUSE of the timing, late on a Friday night, most of the reaction came in Monday’s papers. By then, it was pretty much established among the commentariat that, whatever they had believed before, the horror in Paris proved they had been right in their analysis.
(A minor casualty of the attacks was, of course, Jeremy Corbyn, who also seized the opportunity to suggest how right he had been all along — which means that he could not now be elected even if he were to repent and strangle a suicide bomber with his bare hands on live TV.)
Two former editors of The Daily Telegraph were quick to blame Muslims and immigrants in general. Charles Moore wrote on Monday: “Even if it is true, as it probably [my italics] is, that the great majority of Muslims are as peace-loving and decent as any other group of people, you have the simple problem of numbers.
“If a million Muslims, thanks to Angela Merkel, are reaching Germany this year, and even if only one per cent of them subscribe to the doctrines of Isil, that still means 10,000 people dedicated to killing their hosts and assailing the society that accommodates them.
“And such is the power of Islamist grievance culture and their infiltration of social media, charities, community groups, mosques, and public-policy forums, that one per cent would be a very conservative estimate.”
And Max Hastings, in the Mail, wrote: “Ever since the 7/7 London bomb attacks in 2005, opinion polls have consistently shown a significant minority of young Muslims in this country are actively sympathetic to terrorism. They accuse our society of showing insufficient respect for their religion, and Western governments of launching attacks on Muslims in the Middle East.
“Although it must be stressed that most Muslims in Europe want to get on with peaceful, hard-working lives, we should be alarmed by the presence of an enemy within our society.”
OK. Muslims are scary and alien. Vote Conservative. We get it.
But the link between religion and murder is complicated. There’s no reason to suppose that people are any more willing to observe the injunctions of their religion to do evil than those more frequently cited to do good. You need particular circumstances to turn doctrine into a consuming fire.
BUT there’s something else that happens nowadays in the wake of novelty, if you are discriminating in your Twitter feed: people link to thoughtful analysis that was missed when it first came out.
In this instance, it was Graeme Wood’s interviews with believers in the Caliphate, from the April issue of The Atlantic magazine, and a long New Yorker piece on the poems of jihad — which is meant literally: along with other teenage habits, they write a great deal of sentimental poetry. Both pieces do the essential job of suggesting how IS members think and feel.
They are, of course, profoundly religious, much as the Covenanters or the Teutonic knights were. As Wood writes: “Much of what [IS] does looks nonsensical except in light of a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse.”
In fact, his article supplies a powerful reason for supposing that there is a link between the military defeat of IS and the subsequent quenching of at least one kind of jihadi enthusiasm: because IS builds on an apocalyptic tradition with Islam, it must keep growing to fulfil prophecy.
If it can be shown to shrink and, in fact, to have been crushed and defeated, then it cannot have been the true Caliphate, and those who want to give their lives (and ours) to the glory of the Caliphate will have to find some other cause.
That would be a small victory — a whole lot better than defeat.