In his memoir The Devil in France, the German-Jewish novelist Lion Feuchtwanger looked back on the historical circumstances that had resulted in his internment in a French prison in Tunisia during World War I, and driven him into exile in southern France following Hitler’s ascent to power, and his internment in French concentration camps during World War II before he subsequently found another exile and salvation in New York. Feuchtwanger reached the following conclusions:
‘There are as many rationally adequate explanations as one may wish for the particular course of my own trifling experiences no less than for the issues of greater moment on which they depended. Ingenious minds stand ready to enumerate those reasons – economic reasons, biological, sociological, psychological reasons, reasons deriving from one or another of the philosophies of the universe. I myself, for that matter, could write a book on the subject, sharpening my wits to find logical concatenations.
Deep down in my heart, however, I know that I have not the slightest understanding of the causes of the barbaric turmoil in which all of us are writhing…Some day, one may guess, “all the documents” will be available. But what of that? At the most we shall know only a little more about the immediate causes and consequences of this or that particular fact. The judgment we pass on the course of events as a whole will still be a matter solely of the interpreter’s temperament and throw light only on him.’
By chance I read those words yesterday evening, on a day when the ‘barbaric turmoil’ of our own times erupted once again into the headlines – or at least that particular dimension of the turmoil which inevitably garners more public attention than any other, that we call ‘terror.’
It’s too early to say whether yesterday’s ‘day of terror’ was coordinated, or whether it was a random convergence of events whose perpetrators share the same commitment to ‘leaderless resistance’ jihad which makes it equally possible to murder ‘apostate’ Shia worshippers in a mosque or ‘kufar’ tourists in Tunisia.
Whoever they are, their broader intentions are not difficult to fathom. Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the Kuwait and Tunisia attacks. Both are acts of ‘strategic’ terrorism. The attack in Kuwait is clearly intended to foment the sectarian war that IS believes it can exploit for its own purposes. The attacks in Tunisia are a blow aimed at Tunisia itself, whose struggling economy depends so much on tourism, and they are likely intended to pave the way for the transformation of Tunisia into yet another zone of chaos that can serve as an incubator for the glorious jihad.
The attack on the Imperial Hotel is also ‘political’ in that it is indended to show that Western governments – and the British government in particular – cannot protect their citizens anywhere in the world. These attacks may also be partly compensatory, at a time when Islamic State has experienced a series of military reversals in Syria and faces the prospect of being driven out of its base in Raqaa.
As for the attack in France, who can ‘understand’ why a Muslim employee decapitated his boss and left the head on a fence before driving a vehicle into a gas factory? Ultimately, those who organized or inspired these repulsive acts are trying to communicate some ‘message.’ Like the ‘tooth fairy’ serial killer in Michael Mann’s Manhunter, they want us – Muslims and non-Muslims alike – to ‘feel awe’ at their power and cower before them.
The tooth fairy’s audience was a man strapped to a wheelchair who had no choice but to cower. We do have a choice. We can refuse to accept Islamic State’s description of the man who massacred peaceful worshippers in a Kuwaiti mosque as a ‘knight’ and say that he was a worthless murdering bigot who has disgraced his religion and the name of humanity itself.
We can say that the ‘soldier of the caliphate’ who thought slaughtering at least 38 unarmed tourists was funny is no more worthy of respect than a Nazi concentration camp guard. We can say that such men are not heroes and they are not brave, anymore than Anders Breivik and Dylan Rooff were brave.
When things like this happen, we want to say something, and in fact we need to, because acts of violence like these are intended to shock us and force us into a state of impotent fury or helpless, in which the ability to think and speak begins to seem pointless and irrelevant.
And if we don’t speak, we will allow our governments and their representatives to speak for us, and what they have to say is too often stupid, self-serving and duplicitous. Consider for example, today’s Daily Telegraph editorial, which cited the Queen’s visit to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp this week as a reminder of what was required in the struggle against ‘radical Islamism’:
‘Bergen-Belsen is a reminder of why evil needs to be confronted and why the case for liberal democracy has to be remade each generation. Western values have to be rigorously defended and promoted in schools. Rights to free speech or assembly should be respected, of course, but laws necessary to root out extremism and defend liberty may prove decisive in this struggle.
Perhaps most importantly, the West must possess the capacity to resist terrorism with military means. There is an understandable reluctance to commit troops anywhere on the ground. But there is also a pressing need to do as much as is reasonably possible to push back the advance of Islamists in the Middle East. For the moment, the highest priority should be given to securing the Mediterranean border. ‘
So more repression and surveillance at home. More of the ‘antiterrorism’ education of British Muslims that has had no demonstrable effect whatsoever on ‘radicalization.’ And above all more war abroad, including the unpalatable possibility of troops ‘on the ground’. And the Mediterranean ‘border’ must be ‘secured’ – presumably against the migrants who are trying to cross it who have nothing to do with ‘radical Islam’ – in order to address the collapse of the Libyan state that took place as a result of the last war that the West just had no choice but to fight.
And as for these ‘Western values’ – please don’t make me sick. On yesterday’s ‘day of terror’ Saudi planes carried out another round of air strikes in Yemen, in the same week that the UN announced that 21 million Yemenis – 80 percent of the population – now require humanitarian assistance.
Some of those bombings may have been carried out with British-built planes, because Britain not only arms the Saudis, but has explicitly expressed its support for the war against the supposedly Iran-linked Houthi rebels – a war that is bringing Yemen to the point of collapse.
Unless we are supposed to believe that the Saudis and the Egyptian dictatorship and the autocrats of the Gulf are standing up for liberal democracy, we can only conclude that this ghastly war has very little to do with ‘Western values’ and a lot more to do with geopolitics and statecraft.
And that, tragically, is also the case with much of the ‘barbaric turmoil’ that is currently convulsing the Middle East, and which is sucking one country after another into a terrifying vortex of limitless and inhuman violence.
At this point I ought to come up with ‘solutions’ and ‘alternatives’, but right now I don’t have any to offer except this observation: It may be true, as Feuchtwanger once said, that ‘ the immediate causes and consequences of this or that particular fact’ pertaining to each individual act of barbarism may be elusive. But those of us who have no choice but to be spectators of terrorist spectacles must understand that ‘terror’ is only one manifestation – and consequence – of a dark, amoral and unjust world that many different actors are responsible for.
And until we do that, I can’t help feeling that we are doomed to see yesterday’s horrors repeated again and again, and that we will remain trapped in a deadly dynamic in which terrorism feeds militarism and militarism feeds terrorism, and our prospects of creating a just and peaceful international order are ripped to shreds.