When I first heard that two police officers had been killed in a gun attack in Paris I immediately thought of our two murdered officers Fiona Bone and Nicola Hughes. The news had a particular resonance for GMP because their loss was so painful for the force and particularly her colleagues. When the next day we heard that a third officer a female had been shot then it resonated again because we lost two female officers. I think it was because of this that we wanted to show our support for our French colleagues. Could we get every force in the country to do it ? From a few phone calls and particularly the support of the Police Federation on the Wednesday evening the day of the attack every force paid tribute at 10.30 the next morning and we got pictures of all the ceremonies which have been sent to France. Just before those ceremonies took place word came through of the second shooting.
How do you make sense of such an event and all that has happened since, the violent events of Friday and the two sieges and sadly more people dead and then the incredible march in Paris on Sunday. The issues involved are not new, they are in our minds all the time as we deal with the terrorist threat and the balance between liberty and security.
We saw the diversity of the police officers killed – one white, one Muslim one black but united in that they were part of our profession driven by the desire to serve. As the days passed you heard from their families, you heard about them as people off duty the real person behind the uniform. Sadly from our experience we know that the pain of their families will last way past the time that the headlines have moved to other stories. We pay homage to Clarissa Jean-Philippe, Franck Brinsolaro and Ahmed Merabet officers who understood the risks they were taking but stepped forward.
We saw the great bravery of the officers who dealt with the two sieges and the complexity of the situation they were faced with and how difficult it must have been to assess what they were dealing with and who was inside and to be able react quickly and decisively to try and protect the lives of the hostages.
We saw the way that people were cruelly gunned down – one group for being journalists, cartoonists or police officers and one group because they were Jews. There can be no hierarchy of victims they are all human beings mourned by their loved ones but the killers put a label on them and they were murdered as a result. I suppose one issue is that a journalist can decide to go and do another job out of fear but a Jew cannot stop being Jewish and we understand the particular level of fear in that community. On the other hand journalists are vital to our democracy and civilisation and too many have been killed in the various trouble spots of the world and too many have been imprisoned.
There has been huge debate over many years on the subject of Jihad and radicalisation. We have talked often about the power of extremist ideologies and the increasing threat of how this is piped through social media. On the other hand I look at the killers involved in the Paris attacks and think is this about some ideology or is it that they have a blood lust and a fascination with guns and a disregard for human life that we see in other dangerous criminals such as the one who killed our two police officers. I am troubled that we give so much attention to their videos where they try and grab their five minutes of fame and try and justify their cowardly actions. When over a million marched to express their commitment to civilisation and democracy why did the News give so much coverage to the views of just one perverted individual who caused so much pain and suffering.
In grieving for the dead of Paris we must not forget that in Iraq, Syria, Nigeria and other conflict zones many more are being brutally killed every day. It is a cruel irony that these terrorist organisations which claim such adherence to Islam are killing so many Muslims. The situation is frightening when you see the scale of the turmoil in these countries and the brutality involved. The philosophy of these organisations seems a brutal form of fascism which wants to drag us back to the dark ages and abandon all the progress we have made in creating democracies which are open and fair and in particular respect the views and rights of minorities. We cannot be complacent about the nature of that threat. Some don’t like describing it as a war but on the other hand it will need the degree of determination and common endeavour we had in the Second World War if we are to defeat it.
The events in Paris has shown the strength of the fundamental values and beliefs of the French Republic. They are clear that they are a secular state and that symbols of religious faith must be kept out of their schools and public institutions. They have this strong commitment to the freedom of the press and freedom of speech
Egalite, fraternite, liberte the fundamental call of the French Revolution. They see such importance in this issue of freedom to insult who you like and deny any overt expression of religious belief. This has led to the banning of the wearing of the veil in public and in schools which has caused so much resentment within their Muslim community because they feel they are being singled out. This can never, never be any sort of excuse or justification for violence in return but it is something which causes alienation.
The approach in the UK is different. It is not by chance that none of our mainstream media including the BBC had published cartoons of the prophet Mohammed before the Paris attacks and very few since. Some have criticised this as a sign of weakness and some have seen it as a sign of fear and intimidation. I don’t agree. In the UK it seems to be in the fundamentals of our values that we respect other people’s beliefs and traditions and what is important to them as long as they don’t impose it on us. What you might call live and let live. I think it is one of the best things about this country and one of the best things about Manchester where so many people have come from so many different backgrounds and on the whole live alongside one another respecting each other’s traditions. Some have criticised this “multiculturalism’ as a weakness – I see it as a strength.
As a Catholic I believe that a piece of bread ( the host ) is consecrated by a priest during the mass and becomes the body of Christ. I know many not of my faith see this as irrational and ridiculous but it is what I believe and it is very important to me. So I have no problem with anyone criticising the Catholic Church, what the Pope does, what certain priests have done but would see desecration of the sacrament of communion and the host of bread as we call it as very upsetting. Muslims regard any depiction of the Prophet the same way. So I want to live in a country where people are free to criticise and speak out and draw cartoons and use satire but I also hope it is a country which respects that some things are very important to some people and as long as they don’t break the law or impose their beliefs on others why would I want to go out of my way to insult those beliefs and upset them.
Of course in reality there is not complete freedom of speech. There are a number of things which it is against the law to say and it is fundamental in our society and most modern societies that you do not have freedom to threaten others to be racist or homophobic or to incite hatred and police officers spend much time negotiating around the boundary of what it is acceptable to say and not.
The events in Paris have meant that important figures have had to step forward and state their position and it has brought about this debate about what are our fundamental values. It has caused many leaders of the Muslim community here and in France to state a clear position that whatever their upset about the cartoons they want to live in country where people have the freedom to draw them and a gun can never be the answer to a pen. I don’t think that such Muslim leaders should almost have to keep apologising for a tiny minority who claim the Muslim faith but pervert their religion but I do think that it is healthy that we have this important debate on where the lines lies between freedom of speech and respect and what are those fundamentals that unite everyone. This cannot be left to the police and that is why I support the Government’s proposals to make preventing violent extremism a duty on all public agencies.
I did an interview with an Asian TV station where an academic said this move to make even nurseries have policies on this issue was heavy handed and draconian. I disagree. We are not asking nursery staff to be police spies to seek out toddlers who may become terrorists but we do think that all educational bodies should for instance train their staff to know what to do if a child is expressing worrying views such as I hate all Muslims or keeps on drawing a picture of a gun killing someone. We are not saying they have to report this to the police but they should know how to seek advice on how to deal with this situation and gather more information. More importantly the draft guidance says that universities should have policies to know who is speaking on campus and what they would do if someone is invited expressing extremist views against the values of that university. This has to be part of the drive for all of us to stand up for our core values and to play our part in challenging extremist ideologies.
If there was one other lesson from Paris it was that this was an attack not just on the office of a magazine but against a whole society and what it believes in and therefore the fight against this cannot just be for the police but the whole of society. As I recently argued in an article in the Guardian the best route to a police state to leave the fight against violent extremism to the police alone.