LONDON – As I strolled through Paris the other day, the air was warm, the sky was blue, and I felt like I was in the best of all possible worlds. As always, Paris looked elegant and exuded confidence and cheerfulness. France had just elected a clever, young, handsome, and brave new president, who seemed to match the city’s ambience. Without much bad news to darken the day, I had every reason to walk with a spring in my step.
Of course, things could have been very different. It was just 18 months ago that a terrorist attack in Paris left 130 people dead and hundreds more injured. Last July in Nice, an attacker drove a truck through a Bastille Day crowd on the city’s seafront promenade, killing 86. Not long after that, an assailant slit an elderly priest’s throat at a church in Normandy. And last month, just before the second round of the French presidential election, a policeman was gunned down on the Champs-Élysées.
These wicked acts, stemming from a distorted interpretation of a great religion, did not stop French voters from electing Emmanuel Macron, a man who knows that vigilance requires us to respect all members of our community. To fight evil, we must reject exclusion and hate, and we must not blacken the reputation of a large segment of our society.
I was reminded of this lesson recently, on a taxi ride from central Paris to the Gare du Nord. The driver, after complaining about the competition from Uber (a familiar refrain from London taxi drivers, too), went on to denounce the world and everything in it. He claimed that globalization and mass immigration are destroying jobs, overwhelming public services, compromising French national identity, and breeding terrorists.
Needless to say, the driver had voted for Marine Le Pen – although he did not look like what the National Front would call a “pureblooded” Frenchman. Of course, most of France voted the other way. And while the driver’s grievances still have wide currency, they do not represent a coherent, fact-based approach to today’s problems.
Britain faces its own terrorist threats, as we have seen yet again with the horrendous attack in Manchester, the northwestern city where my grandparents were head teachers, and where my father was born. So far, the death toll stands at 22, many of them children, making the attack on the Manchester Arena Britain’s worst encounter with terrorism since the London Underground bombings in July 2005, which killed 52. There have been similar but smaller-scale incidents since then. And, in previous decades, London and other cities (including Manchester in 1996) withstood attacks by Irish nationalist militants.
And yet Britons, like the French, have not panicked or responded in a knee-jerk fashion. We continue to prefer living in free and open societies, so we have always reacted with calm and measured resolve.
That resolve is one of the strengths of democracy. We will never hand the political agenda over to those who offer only simplistic slogans, crude arguments, and extreme policies. Those who want to pin their problems on “the other” – as defined by race, ethnicity, religion, or nationality – will always be in the minority. Their goal is to close hearts and minds. They have no interest in understanding the causes of violence, or in developing effective ways to address them.
The good sense of democracies is based, in part, on the understanding that country matters more than party. In democracies, effective policymaking rests on compromise and reason. Those of us who live in democracies will not be terrorized into discarding our sense of balance and moderation, because we understand something profound about most societies: life always wins over death.
Although there is such a thing as original sin – the wickedness that simmers, blows up, and scars young children and their family and friends – there is also original virtue, which is always present after terrorist atrocities. It is manifested in the passers-by who stop to help; in the nurses and doctors who attend to the injured; and in those who search for the lost, offer families a bed for the night, or escort people home from the scene of a mass murder.
The people who plan and commit terrorist acts will probably never learn that theirs is a lost cause. Open societies will undoubtedly have to withstand further assaults in the future. But if one thing is clear, it is that terrorists cannot defeat democracy.
In France, voters just elected a new president out of hope, not despair; and in the UK, we will soon hold another free and fair election in June. Democracy will withstand attacks like the one in Manchester; and democratic citizens will respond with courage and generosity.