Sarkozy calls for censorship, the off the shelf answer to extremism

The horrendous rampage of Mohamed Merah, the French man who killed north African soldiers, a rabbi and three Jewish children, has brought all the usual responses from the usual corners. Britain’s “anti-Imperialist” left the Stop The War Coalition’s Lindsey German, decided that it must, must be the fault of French institutional racism, the war in Afghanistan and even the 50th anniversary of the Algerian war. All these apparently excuses for the anti-Semitic murder of children.

The French hard right, led by Marine Le Pen of the Front Nationale, has blamed “politico-religious fundamentalists” and the liberal multiculturalists who apparently enable them.

The government, meanwhile, has blamed the internet.

President Sarkozy announced today, shortly after Merah was killed by French security forces, that people who frequent “websites which support terrorism or call for hate or violence will be punished by the law.”

This is now standard: When east London MP Stephen Timms was stabbed by Roshanara Choudhry in 2010, people were quick to point to YouTube as the source of her radicalisation, an argument I was sceptical of at the time (and remain so).

When Anders Brei vik went on his own spree in Norway, again immediate attention was drawn to his online habits, with some eager to make capital out of the fact he’d read populist writers such as Jeremy Clarkson.

A UK parliamentary report into online radicalisation earlier this year raised the spectre of “Sheikh Google“, playing a role in sending young men and women into ever more extreme and violent positions.

And now Sarkozy’s statement.

The web is always brought up in these issues, for two simple reasons: the fear of the new, and the fact that many in power still feel it is possible to stop the Internet. The reaction to the English riots last summer was a perfect distillation of this: Things are happening on social networks: they must by necessity be bad, and they must be stopped.

The thing that fuels this fervour is the fact that, to some extent, the Internet can be stopped. Sites can be blocked, bandwidth can be squeezed, usage can be monitored.

But blaming the web is as facile as it is attractive. Social unrest did not begin with BlackBerry Messenger. And extremist violence was not invented on the Internet.