Nice and the Spectacle of Terror

Yesterday evening I was driving to play a game of tennis and listening to the radio, when I heard the sounds of of screaming people being mown down by a truck in Nice.  I immediately turned it off.  This isn’t because I think I have some privileged right to ignore the escalating procession of horrors that is driving our fractured and ever-more deranged world ever closer towards catastrophe.

I don’t ignore these terrifying developments, and I would be stupid to do so.  But I don’t need to hear the sounds of children being murdered to know that what took place in Nice is utterly sad and tragic and yet another outrageous crime that disgraces the name of humanity.  And I know that the narcissistic murderers who perpetrate such horrors and the bloodthirsty morons who celebrate them want me to be watching and listening.

Like the psychopathic Tooth Fairy in Michael Mann’s Manhunter such men want an audience to ‘feel awe’ at their ability to transmit atrocity-spectacles through a mass media that thrives on such phenomena.  Both the man driving the truck and the so-called ‘Islamic State’ that has ‘claimed responsibility’ for Thursday’s act of mass slaughter have arrived in that peculiar moral wasteland inhabited by the great murderers and genociders of history, in which it is possible to kill anyone without mercy or restraint.

They see themselves as heroes and avengers.  I don’t.  They want me to feel afraid of their implacable ability to kill anywhere they like.  I just feel disgust, shame and sorrow that we belong to the same species.   No use calling them ‘beasts’ or ‘animals’, because animals don’t behave like this. These men are humans, even if the violence that they perpetuate is dependent on stripping its victims of any semblance of humanity.

We call such men ‘terrorists’ to establish some kind of moral distinction between us and them, and the use of the t-word immediately gives their actions a new moral and political significance, so that even the truck that Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel used as a weapon becomes a ‘terror truck’, as the Sun called it today.

Politicians fall back on the same tropes and rhetorical devices.  We hear that these attacks were aimed at ‘us’ – a first person plural that almost always refers to non-Muslims regardless of the fact that far greater numbers of Muslims than Westerners have been murdered by Daesh and groups like it.   Nearly two hundred Iraqis died in a single bombing in Baghdad the previous week, compared with 84 in Nice – yet as always, attacks on Westerners become a universal media event, which politicians depict as an attack on  our ‘values’ and ‘freedoms’ and our ‘way of life.’

Such depictions ignore the fact that Daesh has a very clear strategy – in its attacks on Westerners anyway – of using atrocity and mass murder to create an unbridgeable chasm between Muslims and non-Muslims in order to eliminate the ‘grey area’ and drive European Muslims in particular towards a dystopian slave state that is inexorably crumbling.

Nothing about freedom or values here – just cold ‘intensification of calamities’ reptilian political thinking of the type that the Russian terrorist Sergei Nechaev once bleakly delineated, whose implications and consequences we ignore at our peril.  Yet again and again we do ignore them, and allow others to reinterpret them.

Today I watched an American ‘security expert’ warning of the danger to France from Muslim ghettoes where the population only obeyed ‘Sharia law’ not French law.   Now there might be marginalized and de facto segregated areas where mostly Muslim populations live in a state of what we politely call ‘social exclusion’ – but I never heard or read any conclusive evidence that such populations live under ‘Sharia law.’

And of course we have a host of pundits informing us that we are ‘at war’ – another essential component of the terror-spectacle.   Well this is true in the sense that every atrocity in Europe is part of a continuum of violence that extends from European capitals to Syria, Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and even further afield.  But it is precisely the wars and interventions that we have waged so gratuitously over the last sixteen years that have created the context in which organizations like ISIS can thrive and present themselves as Islamic holy warriors in a global battlefield.

Had our governments not done this, had they responded to the 9/11 attacks with a measured, calibrated and patient law-enforcement driven response to al Qaeda we might not have been in the situation we are now in.   Had our governments not chosen to bomb and invade one Muslim country after another, we might have drained the crucial – however spurious – legitimacy that groups like AQ and its offshoots have drawn on to present their actions as defensive or reciprocal.

So many what ifs? And it would be an exaggeration to suggest that there would have been no problem or at all if these things had not happened, just as it is crude and simplistic to suggest that every act of mass murder perpetrated by Islamic extremists is some kind of ill-conceived response to Western foreign policy.   But the problem might not have been as all-pervasive as it is now, had our governments not launched themselves into the various ‘wars on terror’ to ‘make us safe’, which have made nobody safe at all – not over here or over there.

Despite these manifold failures, Marine Le Pen would like to ‘begin’ the ‘war’ against was ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ that according to her, hasn’t been fought yet.  How should it be fought?  She doesn’t say.  But others have been saying it for a long time. Forced assimilation; mass expulsions and deportations; turn their cities into car parks; European civil wars; ‘making life harder for Muslims across the board’ – we’ve all heard variants on what this ‘war’ might look like.

In the wake of the Nice attacks, Newt Gingrich has proposed that all American Muslims should be ‘tested’ to see if they believe in ‘Sharia law’ – and expelled if they do.  To me such notions are not only completely impractical – what does a drunk, wife-beating depressive and petty criminal who rarely went near a mosque have to do with ‘Sharia law’? – they have nothing to do with freedom or democracy and reek of incipient fascism.

Of course Daesh and its cohorts would love to see such ‘solutions’ implemented.  These groups don’t believe Muslims have any place in the West – a belief they share with the far right.  It’s safe to assume that they would be extremely happy with a full-blown program of persecution, deportations, and an outbreak of ethnic strife in either the United States or Europe.

For that reason alone, we shouldn’t want to give them that victory, though some clearly don’t care if we do.   There is no doubt that we face an extraordinarily complex and variegated terrorist emergency that is both local and global, whose provocations are designed – like those of so many of their predecessors in the grim history of terrorism – to provoke all-out confrontation and force supposedly democratic societies to reveal their ‘true’ repressive face.

We must resist that temptation, no matter what it takes.  We – Muslims and non-Muslims – must continue together the search for a world based on collective security and peaceful coexistence, on tolerance, justice and mutual respect.  Every atrocity, wherever it takes place, should galvanize us to renew this search not abandon it or conclude that it’s impossible to achieve, because if we stop that common search we are all lost, and the dregs of our species will win.

All governments have the obligation to protect their populations, but too many governments have used terrorist-spectacles as a justification for wars and interventions that have only increased the risks we face.  For this reason terrorism is too important to be left to politicians.   We need civil society to get on board. We need to deepen and widen democracy, not curtail it.   We need to think very clearly, honestly and precisely about who our enemies are and what motivates them .   In the age of the internet and social media, we may never be able to stop marginalised and narcissistic men from seeking redemption and notoriety through poisonous mythologies of grandiose violence.

But no matter how many terror-spectacles they perpetrate, no matter how many times they brag that they love death more than we love life, we must pick up the pieces afterwards and mourn those whose lives have been shattered and cut short.

And then we must forwards together towards our common future with as much serenity and conviction as we can muster, and  continue the search for a world in which these suicide-cum-mass murderers will never be able to see themselves as heroes, and will be treated with universal contempt.

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