But it brought home just how close the war can strike, in the heart of a city I know quite well. A city you can reach by train from London in less time than it takes me to get home from work there.
Another of my friends had been to see Eagles of Death Metal in London a few nights before. They were the band whose performance at the Bataclan theatre on Friday ended so shockingly with the murder of 86 audience members.
These, along with the victims of the other simultaneous Paris attacks, were people like us, doing the same kind of things we do for enjoyment. For all these reasons, their gunning down in cold blood sends a shiver down the Western spine – exactly as it was meant to do.
The co-ordinated events were horrifying, brutal and entirely without any possible justification or excuse.
But let’s try to put it all in proportion – which is exactly what the leaders and media of Europe and America have not been doing. To exaggerate the scale of threat – as they have, as they always do – is to award terrorism its victory.
On any normal day, three to four times as many people die in Paris in normal ways as were killed in Friday’s atrocities. Which is not to belittle in any way the horror that befell those unexpected victims and their families. Just to put it into perspective.
And here are some more figures that help to do that:
- 224 killed in a Russian plane over Egypt
- 43 dead last week in Beirut
- 102 at a peaceful march in Ankara
- 27 in Nigeria and 22 murdered in Pakistan on the same day in October
- 882 total deaths attributed to terrorist attacks since October 1.
Deadly suicide bombings go on week after week in Iraq (9,929 terrorism deaths last year) and Afghanistan (4,505 deaths in 2014) long after most foreign troops (and journalists) have left those countries. In January, 2,000 innocent civilians were slaughtered in one attack by Boko Haram in Nigerian (7,512 killed in 2014). In Pakistan, there were 1,760 terrorism deaths in 2014, in Syria 1,698, in Somalia 801, in Yemen 654, in Libya 429, in India 416. (Figures from the Global Terrorism Index.)
My friend Doug Coombes puts it well: “The list seems never-ending and is easy to turn our backs on, if only for our own sanity.”
But it’s not only terrorists who spread terror – not only those we normally call terrorists, anyway.
According to airwars.org, since American and coalition forces began their campaign in August last year, they had made 8,174 airstrikes on Iraq and Syria before Friday’s events in Paris. They had released 28,578 bombs and missiles and claimed to have killed 20,000 ISIS fighters.
Meanwhile, the number of innocent civilians killed in those strikes is variously claimed to be anything from 639 to 1,974.
The imprecision is itself as telling as any more authoritative figure could be. Who cares for these people as the individuals they were?
Even the smaller number is almost five times as many as died in Friday’s Paris atrocities.
Here’s Doug Coombes again: “I understand and respect those people who wish to express their solidarity with the French people in this moment of horror. But I can't believe that finding any respite from war and terror will be possible until we show solidarity with all those who suffer under these man-made blights.
“And of course the vast majority of these don't live in Western Europe, which remains one of the safest and most peaceful places on Earth.”
Capital punishment without trial
Mohammed Emwazi – the callous killer dubbed Jihadi John – was obviously a most unpleasant and dangerous man. It may well be that the world is better off without him.
That is debatable, given that he was a propaganda tool, and the dead often make better propaganda than the living. And that whenever such a tool is removed, another always seems to spring up in their place.
But in any case his summary execution by drone strike makes me uneasy. Even if they got the right man.
Happily, we no longer have capital punishment in Britain. So why is it any better to carry it out abroad?
Back in August, when Reyaad Khan and Junaid Hussain were killed in Syria, our government, and much of our national press, expected us to applaud. Brummie Hussain was struck by a targeted American attack. Khan, just 21, from Cardiff, was hit by an RAF drone apparently operated from Lincolnshire. A British citizen killed by British forces, reportedly with the approval of the British defence secretary.
Aren’t we supposed to be upholding and defending the rule of democratic law? Yet this was capital punishment – without trial.
Diane Foley, whose journalist son James was beheaded by Jihadi John, has again spoken calmly and wisely. She deplores the craving for revenge shown by her American compatriots. And she wishes Emwazi had been brought to trial for his crimes. As is surely right.