Notes From the Margins…

2016: The Summer of Blood

  • July 27, 2016
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Keep calm and carry on might seem like a rather banal piece of advice, faced with the seemingly endless and unstoppable conveyor belt of atrocities unfolding before us in Baghdad, Kabul,and Istanbul, in Florida, Nice and Germany.

Shoppers in a Baghdad shopping mall; gay and lesbian clubbers; children watching fireworks; disabled residents of a care home; teenagers going to a music concert – all these victims have been selected as targets by mostly young men seeking to piggy-back their way to fifteen minutes of notoriety over the bodies of men, women and children whose lives they have callously extinguished.

Open the paper one day and you can see the  grinning ‘militants’ of the US-backed Syrian rebel group Nour al-Din al-Zenki posing for a photograph as they prepare to cut off the head of a supposed Palestinian child soldier.

Now a baby-faced ‘lone wolf’ apparently ‘inspired’ by Daesh has cut off the head of an 84-year-old priest in France  in a vicious act of sacrilegious murder that he still had time to film and presumably upload before he was predictably shot.

The perpetrators vary in their motives but their profile is depressingly similar.   Some are victim-narcissists, Travis Bickle types torn between hatred and self-pity, seeking a few minutes of homicidal power and glory that adds meaning to otherwise pathetic and meaningless lives in which they have done nothing good or even aspired towards goodness.

Some want to kill immigrants because they were bullied.  Others want to kill gays because they’re gay.  Some are mentally ill.  Some are entirely ‘normal’.    Many of them think that God will be pleased with them.   They shout God is great and might actually be stupid or deluded enough to believe that a God with any greatness or benevolence could ever sanction their freakish savagery.

Some of them may really believe that murdering  defenseless people going about their daily business guarantees them a place in paradise. They boast that they love death more than we love life, but only because they lacked the courage to live in the first place and valued their own lives as little as they valued the lives of others.

Whatever their motivations, their crimes diminish us all.  They drag the name of humanity into the gutter.  They challenge the very idea that human beings are worth saving.  Their crimes call into question the image of (wo)mankind evoked by Hamlet “how noble in reason, how  infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and  admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like  a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals.”

This procession of murderers and assassins reminds us how far we still have to travel to live up to the best expectations of our species, and the best of our common traditions, both religious and secular.  In this vicious summer of blood, it’s easy to feel that we are all passengers in a speeding train being driven by a madman.  It’s tempting to feel demoralised and even crushed by this catalogue of horrors that that screams out for our attention.

In such times, one can feel that everyday life is impossible and even shameful, that words have no power or meaning, that politics is no longer a vehicle for the common good, that the future is likely to be even worse than the present, that a better world is impossible and that perhaps we may already be living in a kind of dystopia.

In the case of Daesh/Isis, it’s also tempting to seek safety and security behind Trumplike walls; to accept wars and states of emergency as the norm; to indulge in visceral fantasies of vetting and even expelling immigrants in general and Muslim immigrants in particular – as if Muslims weren’t themselves victims of these evil acts in far greater numbers than white Europeans.

Our politicians promise more wars – even though the wars we have already waged so disastrously have been instrumental in creating the conditions for the nightmare that is now unfolding.  We hear that we must balance civil and human  rights against security, usually in order to tilt the balance in favour of the latter.

We would do well to resist these temptations.  Daesh may be a political and moral monstrosity, but it is a monstrosity with a very clear set of strategies.   It would like to turn Europe into a hell for European Muslims and the Muslim refugees who come to Europe, in order to force Muslims to embrace its ill-starred Caliphate.  It would like us to believe that everyday life is impossible, that we can’t be safe anywhere, that its legions of depressed, marginalized and sometimes mentally-ill murderers represent the Muslim vanguard in a new religious war.

We don’t have to give into this.  If we want to be democracies, then we should not allow ourselves to be tempted by authoritarian pseudo-solutions to terrorism.  If we want to have open, tolerant societies that uphold civil and human rights then we should remain tolerant and open and continue to uphold and celebrate those rights no matter how often Daesh tries to undermine them.

If we want a common European home where men and women of different races, cultures and religions can coexist and prosper together, then we must continue to believe in that possibility and work towards it, no matter how often Daesh kills and bombs.

Because in the end, a movement that  can produce only murderers has no future except the one that we give it.

Historically, the essential aim of non-state terrorism, regardless of its aims or ideology,  is to lure its more powerful opponent into an over-reaction.  Daesh is no exception.  Here in Europe, it’s using atrocity as an instrument of political and social engineering with a ferocity and ruthlessness that no previous organization has ever aspired to.

Now more than ever, it’s essential that a fragile and fractious continent seething with dangerous political forces doesn’t allow itself to be terrorised into becoming something monstrous.

And the best way – perhaps the only way – to ensure that outcome,  is do what we can to protect ourselves, hold onto our best traditions,  and  keep calm and carry on.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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