The bodies in the Bataclan Theatre had barely stopped twitching before the authoritarians started their predictable chorus. “It’s Edward Snowden’s fault!”, they thundered. “If that treasonous wretch hadn’t spilled the beans on government snooping, the Paris attackers would have been rotting in jail rather than murdering 130 people!”. It’s a brilliant argument, of course—in a parallel universe where there were no terrorist attacks before June 2013, and the governments of Europe hadn’t already spent over a decade publicly announcing their surveillance powers via an endless stream of legislation. It has since emerged that the French jihadis communicated via unencrypted SMS messages. To say that the Big Brother worshippers are barking up the wrong tree is an insult to the intelligence of dogs.
But even this logic-defying response was no match for the hyperventilation that ensued once it was revealed that one of the attackers had a PlayStation in his home, and might have, perhaps, at some point, possibly used it to communicate with someone, maybe, about the attacks. Or maybe not. Who knows. But he could have done, and that’s more than enough to set off an outbreak of collective panic amongst the technophobic blue-rinse brigade who simply cannot stomach the thought of people being able to interact without the benevolent State watching over them, like an eighteenth-century chaperone, to ensure that their communications are all above board.
This instinctive rush to blame technology for the behaviour of a few deranged individuals has been gaining significant purchase amongst the commentariat in recent years. Almost any device or website that was used by the perpetrator of a serious crime is instantly suspected of aiding and abetting—if not outright causing—the act itself. Curiously this fallacy doesn’t seem to apply to everyday objects such as cars or microwave ovens, perhaps because such inventions have been around long enough that they no longer seem threatening. But God help you if you ever write a smartphone app that the next Jihadi John finds useful, even if just to remember his shopping list. In the eyes of the technology inquisitors, you might as well have carried out the beheadings yourself.
Science-fiction author Arthur C Clarke once remarked that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and it seems that where politicians are concerned, “sufficiently advanced” includes anything invented in the last thirty years. Their continued demands for a form of encryption that is secure against hackers and thieves, but magically unlocks in the presence of intelligence services, implies an almost religious view of technology—as if an electronic device crunching numbers can somehow assume the role of Saint Peter, opening the pearly gates to the noble and pure while rejecting the corrupt and sinful. A security system that can divine the moral intentions of its user makes an interesting plot device in Harry Potter, but sadly it cannot exist in reality.
So it is clear that the political elite has almost no understanding of modern technology, and if there is one aspect of society that has remained constant throughout history, it is the tendency for authority figures to fear and loathe what they don’t understand. It happened in the 17th century with Galileo’s dogma-defying model of the Earth’s orbit; it happened in the 1980s with the supposedly “satanic” Dungeons and Dragons; and we see the same thing today as politicians of every colour unite in their dogged belief that censoring the internet is the solution to every problem imaginable. The precise nature of the rhetoric may have changed—overt religiosity is out, vague waffle about security and “hate speech” is in—but the fundamental motivations are the same. If it’s newfangled and complex, it’s probably dangerous and should be monitored, restricted or even banned altogether.
But perhaps this obsession with the tools used by terrorists conceals something even more insidious than simple neophobia. We live in an age when standing up for liberal Enlightenment values is rather unfashionable; instead, guilt-ridden cultural relativism is the norm. Much of the narrative that follows an atrocity is focused on what we—the belligerent, exploitative, racist West—might have done to deserve it. Is it any wonder that in this stifling climate, public figures hardly dare discuss the warped ideologies that turn people into nihilistic murderers? Far safer to retreat into trivial hand-wringing over the web-sites they visit or the words they use, and perhaps pass a bit of symbolic thought-crime legislation just to express our disapproval. It won’t solve anything, of course, but at least it won’t trigger anyone.
It is often said that madness means doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results, and nowhere is this more evident than in the government’s response to emotive issues. Ham-fisted attempts to control and censor the internet have had no demonstrable impact on child abuse, racism or even copyright infringement, and yet—like a nervous child who refuses to let go of a tattered, saliva-stained stuffed animal—politicians desperately cling to their favourite golden hammer irrespective of its uselessness. If our leaders cannot grow a collective spine and start addressing the root causes of terrorism rather than sacrificing yet more vital freedoms on the altar of blind optimism and magical thinking, then not only will we continue to suffer at the hands of violent extremists, but we won’t even have a society worth defending from them in the first place.