The French Republic seeks solace and reconciliation in the ritual of justice

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The trial opened today (8th of September) of those suspected of involvement in the November 2015 Paris terrorist killings. This is the beginning of the ritual of justice by which France will attempt to come to terms with the unspeakable and, perhaps, help to heal the social and ideological divisions that made the attacks possible, even inevitable, in the first place. 

It will be long and it will be difficult.

Especially for the families and friends of the 130 victims, for those who survived but are still struggling with physical and psychological injuries, for France as a nation, obliged to re-live a night of tragedy, terror and confusion. And confront its own contradictions.

The crucial fact is that twenty men with Arab names will be charged with planning the murder of dozens of young people, in the name of a fanatical group determined to replace the Republic of openness and acceptance with a religious dictatorship characterised by exclusion and hate.

Over the coming weeks and months, the trial will be open to all. The proceedings will be filmed for history, reported by news organisations from all over the world. Nothing will be hidden, so that justice can be done, and be seen to be done in the only way possible — strictly, objectively, fairly.

As the judge Denis Salas has said, “justice opposes the noise of weapons with the sound and force of words. This is where we, as a democratic society, take up the challenge thrown down by terrorism and barbarity.”

The trial is obviously not enough. But it is an essential step in the direction of civilisation.

Reducing the world to words

The business of the court is conducted in words. Events are described so that a narrative can be established in which the place of each suspect is clear. The means by which that narrative is arrived at — forensic research, the analysis of phone records, DNA sequencing — are also described.

It means those defending the accused are in a position to offer an alternative narrative, based on a different understanding of what the words mean. The five judges must then decide which version is the most plausible, the most coherent.

In the end, words have an objective value. For example, the term “terrorist”, removed from the list of charges facing the accused in this trial and replaced by the merely “criminal” could make the difference between 10 years in jail or life imprisonment.

The young woman and the ‘monster’

Olivia Ronen, the 31-year-old lawyer who will defend Salah Abdeslam, the sole surviving member of the Paris killing squads, dislikes being asked how she can stand up and speak on behalf of such a “monster”.

“My answer is that monsters don’t exist,” she says. “But the right to be defended is part of the very idea of justice. There is nothing worse than going through the motions, pretending. The more serious the charges, the more committed the defence must be. There can be no concession.”

Abdeslam chose her himself, after seeing her on television. The man who has refused to speak to the authorities for the best part of five years asked to be represented in court by Olivia Ronen. And she accepted.

Because that’s how justice works.

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