French President Nicolas Sarkozy is winning plaudits for his handling of the killing spree that gripped Toulouse, France last week. By taking a strong stand to bolster a grieving nation and pushing his security forces to their highest alert to neutralize a jihadist killer, Sarkozy may have also energized his re-election campaign; a campaign many thought he was destined to lose.
But to succeed, France’s conservative president pushed into the realm of reactionary politics. Certainly, that’s not unusual for the leader of France’s Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), a center-right party. But Sarkozy over-reacted to the details of what may have changed Mohammed Merah from a delinquent into a spree killer inspired by Al-Qaeda.
Sarkozy pointed directly at computers and the internet as the means for how Merah shaped not only his ideology but also for constructing his lethal plans that rendered seven dead and six wounded.
“Any person who habitually consults internet sites that praise terrorism and call for hatred and violence will be punished under criminal law,” Sarkozy promised.
But how will Sarkozy back up such a promise? And doesn’t the French president realize his cure opens society to governmental abuses that are almost as bad as what he’s trying to prevent?
Sarkozy joins a long line of politicians, religious figures, and knee-jerk reactionaries who want to blame the latest modes of communication for all of society’s ills. Weren’t all those violent television programs of the 1960s and onward the root cause of crime and violence? (Never mind that the crime rate in America is actually at a 40 year low despite televised violence.) Wasn’t rock ‘n roll supposed to be the end of democracy or the end of civilization or some other such nonsense? (The republic still stands despite more than 60 years of such music.) So now the internet is going to transform wayward thieves into jihadis? Reasonably we should not have to wait decades to bury this theory in the proverbial dustbin of history too.
Supposedly, Merah was on a so-called “watch list,” before he began his killing spree this month. This begs the question concerning the efficiency of police or security services assigned to such watches and the usefulness of such lists. Although French authorities are now trying to downplay Merah’s connection to terrorist groups (an image they helped the media portray to the world to say nothing of how this plays into the goals of terrorists) they are obviously trying to reframe the story away from the opportunities they had to look more closely at Merah after his return from trips to Pakistan and Afghanistan, not to mention the failure for intervention connected to Merah’s other brushes with the law.
The Merah incident reveals the incompetency of the French intelligence and security system. So we don’t have to fall into paranoia about the French state erecting a huge Orwellian internet spy agency to figure out what we are reading. We already know how that will laughably turn out if they did. One correspondent who watched the Merah incident unfold and its aftermath noted that his sources in the intelligence and security fields tell him shutting down jihadist websites is actually counter-productive. How else can intelligence agencies infiltrate and track their users if jihadist websites are not so easy to find?
But what we should fear is that government leaders would consider such solutions. Another conservative, Prime Minister David Cameron made similar statements about monitoring social media after last summer’s riots in the United Kingdom.
Don’t these Western leaders realize when they use such tough talk they sound a lot like mullahs in Iran who certainly support limited internet access in their theocratic state (for more please see: “Iran’s Electronic Curtain”), or Chinese leaders who want to maintain some controls over the internet, and who still employ internet-watching state agents (even as impossible as that seems with China’s 1.3 billion internet users)? (For more on this please see: “Soft Power & China’s Need to be Liked.”)
So yes, certainly mourn Merah’s victims in France. But don’t blame the internet tools he used. Unlike guns, which are also tools, computers and the internet were not constructed with the single purpose of killing. And yes, with the right computer virus, lethality can result. And yes, like a virus, some websites can certainly influence weak minds to take psychotic action. However, social media and the internet amplify ideas. But they don’t create the ideas.
Websites, blogs, and the internet as a whole are really neutral. As a society, we are responsible for how we shape the use of these tools. As Nicholas Negroponte wrote in the prescient Being Digital the revolution of data and information streaming is inevitable. It is moving at light speed and those who try to stop it or ignore it will be left behind in the analog past.
So the suggestion to Sarkozy and his followers is embrace these tools, don’t condemn them, limit them, or try to scare people away from them because of a few errant users. These communication tools are tools of connectivity. They are being used for development, for improvement, and certainly for revolution too. (For more please see: “Social Media the Recipe for Revolution?” and “A Deeper Dialogue on the Media’s Role in the ‘Twitter Revolutions’.”)
But by using these tools it is also easy to monitor the French election campaign, and to see how Sarkozy and his team are shaping the communication environment. Such manipulation of the moment reveals the dark cynicism it takes to run a political campaign by continuing to use the hoary but still useful tactic of blaming the messenger. And if the French public are fooled by these images of constructing a Ministry of Truth as a panacea to defeat terrorism, then the real fear should be that we will see these promises delivered to us again and again by politicians who have read Sarkozy’s script and found it useful.
(The photo of French President Nicolas Sarkozy is by Moritz Hager; the photo is from the World Economic Forum via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license. To see a background piece about Mohammed Mera from Al Jazeera please check below. To see a report from Euronews about Sarkozy’s promises after the Mera incident in Toulouse, please also check below.)