I START where anyone who writes about the Charlie Hebdo attacks should start. What happened in Paris was a crime against humanity. No other term does it justice. And we should use the full force of the rule of law – that precious ideal we have seen millions of people rise up to defend this week – against anyone who has committed or would commit such a crime, and try them against our very own principles of freedom, respect for life, democracy and peace.
But let’s not get caught up in the idea that this is about our right to insult people’s religious beliefs. It’s not. Beyond the brutality of the attacks, we feel so shocked by them precisely because they infringe upon our treasured notion of a society based on the rule of law and all the good it brings: peace, security, stability, and yes, freedom of opinion and expression.
At this point, however things start to become a little uncomfortable for us. If we are going to defend so forcefully this treasured concept, honed as it has been over centuries, if we are to defend it from such crimes against humanity, then we cannot be selective in our opposition to such crimes.
Any crime that matches the unthinkable brutality of the Charlie Hebdo attacks must be considered on the same terms.
We do this with 9/11, with 7/7, and with all the other terrorist attacks that have so cruelly claimed the lives of innocents. But there is one such crime that very rarely gets a look in. The illegal, US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 can be shown to be, in every aspect of its conception and execution, a crime against humanity.
Launched without UN backing, against a state which had not committed an act of aggression against the West and which had no connection to acts of terrorism, and designed to terrorise a government and a people into submission (remember Operation Shock and Awe?) it cost – even on the most conservative of estimations – the lives of tens of thousands of innocent civilians. And the loss of these lives was no less painful than the loss of lives in Paris.
Imagine, if you can, how many families in Iraq over the last decade have felt like the families of the Charlie Hebdo victims.
As such, we should attempt to bring the full force of the law to bear on this crime and its perpetrators. Tony Blair, George W Bush and senior figures in both administrations, as well as in other Western states, should be pursued in court – forced to explain how and why we ended up in such an imperial folly.
For those who still cling to the notion that the invasion of Iraq was somehow justified, the rule of law surely states that it should be left to legal proceedings to judge whether that is true or not.
So let’s do precisely that. Let’s put on display everything that’s good about a Western society that was so brutally attacked last week. If the courts then decide that there was justification for the invasion then so be it – again, the rule of law is paramount.
Unlikely? Sure, but there is one great boon from even just attempting to take such a course of action. Dealing with this weeping sore at the heart of “civilised”, Western society, showing the world that we know what happened needs to be revisited and reassessed would surely be one giant step in the right direction in terms of addressing the very deeply-felt wounds that are spurring on the likes of the Charlie Hebdo attackers.
Like it or not, time and again the invasion of Iraq is cited by these terrorists as the reason why they launch their murderous attacks, as we saw again last weekend with the video from Amedy Coulibaly.
No matter how wrong, how criminal the invasion is judged to be, it can never be a justification for attacks on innocent civilians in the West, civilians who, in a fatal irony, are likely to have opposed the invasion, as millions did when they took to the streets of Europe in protest in 2003.
The fact that people would use the invasion of Iraq as a pretext to murder is delusional in the extreme.
But even if we believe it to be solely a propaganda tool used by radical jihadists to brainwash disaffected young Muslim men in search of a cause, what better way to deal with it than to publicly show we hold ourselves to account to our own treasured standards, hopefully removing it as a weapon of radicalisation in the process?
The reality is that it remains a very real issue in the lives and mind of jihadists, and one at the heart of the story of jihad itself over the last decade.
We cannot keep ignoring it and simply airbrush it from history.
Andy Price is head of politics at Sheffield Hallam University.