On Wednesday, two striking events happened in France. The first was that the President of the Republic led the nation’s mourning for Lieutenant-Colonel Beltrame, the policeman who swopped himself for a hostage at the siege at a supermarket in Trèbes last week. Elsewhere in Paris on the same day there was a silent march past the flat of Mireille Knoll. As a girl, in 1942, Mme Knoll narrowly escaped being rounded up by the French police and put on a train to Auschwitz. Last weekend, at the age of 85, the remains of her wheelchair-bound body were found in her Paris flat. Her body had been stabbed and burned. Mme Knoll, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease had apparently previously told police about a neighbour who had threatened to ‘burn her’. And so the fires that failed to catch the nine-year old Mireille in Auschwitz caught up with her seven decades later in multicultural, diverse, 21st century France.
What are we to think about this? Well, that depends on what we are allowed to know. There has been some outcry about the murder of Mme Knoll (not least because of its similarity to the murder of 66-year old Sarah Halimi last year) and it has been described as an act of ‘anti-Semitism’. But you might have to search – certainly in the English-language press – to find out what variety of anti-Semite might have stabbed a Jewish grandmother eleven times and then burned her body. Was it a member of the National Front? Or Momentum?
Read a report like this one at Sky and all you will learn is that ‘Two men, including a neighbour, have been charged with the 85-year-old’s murder.’ But if you read other parts of the press in France then the reference I made earlier to France’s new ‘diversity’ and ‘pluralism’ begins to make sense.
Likewise with the murderer of Arnaud Beltrame. In the days since his murder, Lieutenant-Colonel Beltrame has come to epitomise the very finest of his country and people. The words ‘brave’ and ‘heroic’ are overused, but in their purest, most inviolable form they apply to this son of France. But what are we to know, or say, about the person who slit his throat and shot him in the head? The attacker – who claimed allegiance to Isis – killed four people in total. And only some of the news stories carry any details about the man. He was apparently called Redouane Lakdim. He was 26 years old and was born in Morocco though became a French national where his main contributions to the life of the nation consisted of petty criminality and jihadism.
What are we to think, or say, about any of this?
For the time-being we can deplore the murder of an 85-year old Holocaust survivor and praise the heroism of Arnaud Beltrame, but not do either victim the decency of trying to learn much information about their killers, what might have motivated them or what views we might come to as a consequence. To do so would be to trespass upon the fiercest dogmas of our day. We can feel sad. And we can tell people that we feel sad. But who would dare to do anything more than that?
I frame this in terms of ‘what can we think about this’ for a very particular reason: which is that this is now a question which citizens of free countries must consider very carefully. In the wake of a number of official and unofficial government directives across Europe in recent months there is now a battle going on for the education of the general public.
Social media networks – especially Facebook and Twitter – have in recent months begun a ‘scraping’ of their platforms. Embarrassed by their intermittent exposure by the old media, they also face threats of increasing liabilities from national governments and security agencies. So platforms, which have for years allowed terrorist groups like Hezbollah to proselytise with impunity have now begun to try to enforce a new, higher standard. Unfortunately the standard they are seeking to enforce is a standard based on the uneven slope that I have previously described as ‘Rowleyism’ – after the Metropolitan Police’s former assistant commissioner Mark Rowley. As I wrote here recently:
‘It was he who last month embedded the idea that the UK faces an equally balanced challenge: Islamist extremism on the one side, far-right extremism on the other. In order to sustain this equation it appears that for the time-being one must draw a moral equivalence between Muslims who blow things up and non-Muslims who do not… between Muslims who call for murder and non-Muslims who do not.’
Most of us are intensely happy about actual incitement – whether it be from the far-right, Islamist groups or anyone else – being subjected to the existing strictures of the law. But Rowleyism, as applied to social media, has a different type of effect. Among other things it appears to equate violent groups with violent facts.
Earlier this year, the former founder of the English Defence League, Tommy Robinson, was suspended from Twitter for tweeting a statistic about rape-gangs – something that has been much in the news of late. Indeed if we are not merely going to pass around cat photos on social media, discussion of the mass-rape of the nation’s children might seem to be a legitimate activity. Just this week another such gang has been convicted – this time once again in Oxford. Saying ‘rape-gang’ or ‘grooming gang’ is of course itself a get-out. As is the dishonest and deliberately misinforming term ‘Asian rape-gangs’. But it is hard to know what one can say these days. ‘Muslim rape gang’ or ‘Pakistani rape gang’ may be accurate, but it will also bring forth a world of problems – including flaggings on social media. In recent days readers have shown me how they have been suspended from Facebook just for posting my recent Spectator article on ‘Rowleyism’. ‘Rape-gangs’ is certainly a flagged term.
And so it is that anyone interested in anything other than just feeling sad about the latest cache of rape-victims, and who, for instance, wonders about the characteristics of the latest Oxford gang (whether it is, for instance, an average Inspector Morse don-on-don style mystery) must work it out for themselves. They might be lucky and see the photo accompanying the BBC’s report of the story here. Or they may not. And more and more one gets the sense – in France, the UK and elsewhere – that there is a hope that we don’t work it out. Certainly an ever-decreasing number of people appear to be allowed to help us.
As it happens, Tommy Robinson’s stats were those put out by the admirable Muslim-run think-tank Quilliam. Their landmark report from December found that:
‘84 per cent of ‘grooming gang’ offenders were (South) Asian, while they only make up seven per cent of total UK population and that the majority of these offenders are of Pakistani origin with Muslim heritage.’
So the suspension of Tommy Robinson from Twitter for saying this raises a fascinating modern conundrum. Is it possible that there are facts which one person is allowed to say, but another is not? Can it be the case that, because of certain racial or religious characteristics, one person’s statement of facts is another person’s demonstration of prejudice? It is a question which Twitter, among others, has clearly made a judgement on. And that is in the affirmative.
As of Wednesday, Robinson (who had almost half a million followers on the platform) has been suspended from Twitter for good, without explanation. Of course Twitter is a private corporation and can do what it likes, though many users may be surprised at the extent to which it is no longer either a free or apolitical platform. But here is the problem. And it is one I encounter everywhere across our continent.
In Germany friends and readers describe to me how they are learning anew how to read their daily newspapers. When the news says that ‘A person was killed by another person’ for instance, and no names or other identifying characteristics are given, people guess – correctly – that the culprit is probably of migrant background. For the time-being serious crimes are still reported, but the decision has been taken that the public should not really be informed about them. Of course if you were to report them, or mull on them on social media then you would now risk losing that platform. So the media isn’t much use. And social media isn’t either.
In this situation how are we to deal with issues like that of grooming gangs? The communities from which the culprits come don’t seem to want to address the issue. Mainstream society and politics has shown itself repeatedly unwilling and unable to do more than commission further, endless inquiries into these issues. And passing around what facts are known appears to have become difficult (and perhaps in the near future wholly impossible). The social media platforms will say that the facts are passed around in a hateful manner. But it is hard to see how exactly one might frame the mass gang-rape of children in an un-abashedly upbeat fashion.
As it is with rape-gangs, so it is with the nameless, perpetrator-less crimes in Germany. And so eventually it will be with the burning of a Holocaust survivor in her Paris flat. We are still allowed to notice the tragedy. We can observe the passing age. But we are losing the ability – and the right – to point to the pyre. Or to identify it. Even as it mounts.