Was Mohammed Merah part of a global al-Qaeda conspiracy to subvert the west or was he a nut job with a firearm? Since he was shot dead by French police last week in Toulouse we will never know the real answer to that question.
However, being that there's an election brewing in France, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has wasted no time proclaiming that Mr. Merah was but the first wave of Islamic terrorists coming to bring down the Republic. And, as is par for the course when confronting such a dangerous threat, the first thing the state must do is clamp down on the civil liberties and freedoms of the citizenry. I mean, let's be real, we mustn't allow the public to say and do things that might be disagreeable to the "right-thinking" citizens of France.
Mr. Sarkozy has proposed that the government make it a crime for an individual to consult a website that promotes terrorism or racism or hatred. Such restrictions are nothing new in France. It is against the law in France to promote racial hatred or to deny the Holocaust (and don't forget speech denying that the Turks committed genocide against the Armenians).
Who defines what promoting terrorism is? It may be trite, but one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. Must one consult with the French Foreign Ministry before surfing the web to make certain you aren't clicking through to a website promoting rebellion against some French-supported government on the other side of the world?
What would this restriction mean for students and scholars? Will the French police compile a list of websites that are off-limits to the citizenry? And how would anyone know who visited the website? You might be able to narrow it down to a computer or a small wireless network, but without a confession how would you prove that Jacques clicked through to the al-Qaeda website or took a look at the al-Qaeda Twitter feed (what, you mean the SEO folks haven't gotten through to Osama bin Laden's successor about getting them on the first page)?
Mr. Sarkozy would also make it illegal for people to travel abroad for "terrorist indoctrination." And just what the hell does that even mean? The only difference between a peaceful protester and a terrorist, after all, is someone with a little more firepower than a rock. Again, would Mr. Sarkozy only throw those folks in jail who didn't consult with the government about whom it's alright to protest against? And how would that work for French soldiers training under a foreign flag in another country battling an internal rebellion (or whatever the hell is going on in Afghanistan)?
He also proposes banning "militant Muslim preachers" from entering the country. I guess that means it's okay for militant Christian and Jewish religious leaders to spout their right-wing theories across the French countryside. And what makes a preacher "militant?" Would that be someone who is uncompromising, who raises his voice or someone whose view of the world differs from the government's "official" version?
Mr. Sarkozy, I don't know how to break this to you, but you just can't stop the flow of information anymore. The internet, satellite television and radio and cell phones have pretty much made that the modern-day equivalent of tilting at windmills. I get the fact you're losing at the polls and that you need something, anything, to get people's minds off of how little you've accomplished. Sowing the seeds of hate and fear is a time-honored political tactic. Hell, George W. Bush practically wrote the 4th Amendment out of existence in the post-9/11 hysteria.