The debate is over. Or, at least, the votes in parliament have been counted, and MPs have voted to support British planes to bomb targets in Syria. For many outside observers (me, at least), the whole issue was shot through with complexity and unpredictability: who can say whether action or inaction will lead to more beneficial (or less harmful) outcomes? However, there are debaters, both in and out of parliament, who have treated the issue as if the right decision was obvious, with no room for legitimate disagreement: to some it was a war against ‘evil’, while for others it will prove to be ‘another Iraq’. The Prime Minister, who should know better, made an undignified slur against the leader of the opposition. He was in turn mocked for a lack of planning, as if a war could be arranged like a game of chess, in which the actions of the neatly ordered sides could be easily predicted in advance. For those of us struggling to keep up with all of this hot air, it was tempting to simply join one side or the other in their clamourous conviction.
Let’s turn back briefly: it is Paris, and the year is 1793. The revolutionaries have dethroned and executed the king, declared a republic and chosen a new assembly based on universal male suffrage. Surrounded by enemies, the majority of the deputies seek refuge in certainty: on the left, Citizen Danton calls for ‘audacity, audacity, always audacity’ to save France. On the right, the Girondins are unimpeachable in their moral integrity – their speeches enable them to find new ways to protect la patrie from the evil machinations of their political opponents. Squished between the warring factions are the Plain, usually known more derisively as ‘the marsh’, weedy, weak-willed and hesitant deputies who vote sometimes with one faction, and then the other. Their lack of conviction is always emphasised in contrast to the ‘Mountain’, the group of deputies who thrive on conviction and certainty, and whose speeches argue relentlessly for courage, virtue, and inevitably, masculine strength. To sit in the Mountain is intoxicating – to know that you and your companions are alone responsible for the defence of all that is good in the revolution, and that together its enemies can be weeded out and defeated. These are the men that are willing to terrorise France, in order to save her.