A demonstrator in Paris shows her support for the magazine. Photo: Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images
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Leader: the Charlie Hebdo attack and the terror next time

To overreact to what happened in Paris – to indulge in grandiose declarations about wars between civilisations or to turn Britain into a surveillance state – would further encourage the terrorists to believe that they are winning. They are not. 

The well-planned and murderous attacks in Paris in which 17 people were killed by Kalashnikov-wielding Islamist militants provoked worldwide outrage and revulsion. There was an outpouring of sympathy for and expressions of solidarity with the murdered journalists of Charlie Hebdo, the once obscure and struggling satirical magazine that emerged out of the countercultural upheavals of the late 1960s and that has long delighted in wilful provocation and shattering of taboos.

If the French-Algerian Kouachi brothers and their sponsors wished to silence Charlie Hebdo, which offended many Muslims by publishing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, their failure could not have been greater. On 14 January, the magazine published a 16-page special edition, which had a print run of three million, and the paper has been flooded with donations from media groups. If it did not before, the world now knows all about Charlie Hebdo and what it represents.

Left to its own devices or ignored, it might well have gone out of business. As it stands, Charlie Hebdo will be able to go on blaspheming, offending and defending the values of the French republic. One does not have to agree with all of its ultra-left-libertarian editorial decisions to be greatly cheered by this, as well as the courage of its surviving staff.

The attack by the Kouachi brothers’ associate Amedy Coulibaly on a kosher supermarket on 9 January, in which four Jewish men were murdered, was yet another reminder of the vulnerability of Jews, wherever they happen to be in the world. Already the vast majority of Jews have left, or have been forced to leave, North Africa and the Arab Middle East, where millions once lived even as recently as the 1950s (there are small communities remaining in a few countries, such as Iran and Turkey). It is estimated there are 1.1 million Jews in the European Union, mostly in France and Britain. How safe must they feel in the present environment?

The Kouachi brothers said that they did not kill civilians, from which one concludes that as well as the military the terrorists considered the police, journalists and, in the case of Coulibaly, Jews to be legitimate targets in their war against the secular west. Small wonder that more and more Jews are choosing to emigrate from France to Israel because of the way anti-Semitism has poisoned the culture.

How vulnerable is Britain to comparable attacks? As Andrew Hussey, a Paris-based academic and the author of The French Intifada, explains in this week’s magazine, the attacks have to be understood in the context of the peculiarities and specificities of France’s relationship with its Arabs and its former colonies. French colonialism, the Algerian civil war and its long, violent aftermath, the alienation felt by many Muslim youths living in the impoverished banlieue – the zones surrounding cities such as Paris and Lyons – high unemployment, the failures of post-colonial integration: all have contributed to a sense of a nation at war with itself.

Yet, throughout the world, atrocities and the mass murder of civilians are being committed by those who claim to act in the name of Islam, from Boko Haram in Nigeria to the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Militant Islamism is one of the great transnational evils and it thrives in states of disorder and where the rule of law has broken down.

Britain has endured attacks – from the London bombings of 7 July 2005 to the brutal murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby in Woolwich, south London, in 2013 – and will do so again. But we should treat with scepticism the alarmist pronouncements of those such as Andrew Parker, the head of MI5, who, in a speech on 8 January, warned that Britain was at risk of an imminent attack from al-Qaeda or one of its affiliates. He used his speech to ask for the security services to be granted enhanced access to surveillance of digital communications, to which David Cameron seems more than happy to accede. The issue of how to balance the competing needs of security and liberty remains as difficult as ever.

British jihadis are as opposed to the values of a free press and the open society as the Kouachi brothers and their like. They wish to destroy our way of life and change our behaviour and we should not let them. The best way to combat their extremism is through vigilance, patience and a benign reassertion of liberal values.

To overreact, to indulge in grandiose declarations about wars between civilisations or to turn Britain into a surveillance state would further encourage the terrorists to believe that they are winning. They are not. 

This article first appeared in the 16 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Jihadis Among Us

GARY WATERS
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In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt