At first sight, 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 that is unfolding before us on a weekly and almost daily basis.. In Baghdad, Kabul and Istanbul, in Florida, Nice and Germany, the most toxic and poisonous hatreds course feverishly through a world that is increasingly saturated with violence.
Shoppers being blown to bits 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 15 minutes of notoriety on 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 happily posing for a photograph as they prepare to cut off the head of a supposed Palestinian child soldier. Now a baby-faced ‘lone wolf’ who was 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 – because without a decent video to leave as your legacy, what’s the point, after all, of killing and being shot.
The perpetrators vary in their motives but their profile is often depressingly similar regardless of their ideology – assuming they even have one. 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 of them want to kill immigrants because they were bullied. Others want to kill gays because they’re gay. Some of them are mentally ill. Some are entirely ‘normal’. Many of them – as I’m sure I don’t need to remind anyone – think that God will be pleased with. 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 absurd and freakish acts of savagery.
Some of them may really believe that murdering defenceless and unsuspecting people going about their peaceful daily business guarantees them a place in paradise. They boast that they love death more than we love life, when 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.’
We know that there is nothing noble, angelic or godlike about this procession of murderers and assassins, and their stubborn persistence in our century 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.
Now, 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 jawdropping horrors that we are constantly obliged to gape at.
In times like these, 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 dark and getting worse, that utopia or even a better world is impossible and that perhaps we’re already living in dystopia.
In the case of Daesh/Isis, it’s also tempting to respond to the deliberate malice and vindictiveness with an equally vindictive response, to seek safety, security and revenge in Trumplike walls; in wars and states of emergency; in visceral fantasies of vetting and repressing and even expelling immigrants and Muslim immigrants – as if Muslims weren’t themselves victims of these evil acts in far greater numbers than white Europeans.
Our politicians promise more wars – as if the wars we have already waged so disastrously have not 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, which vary from country to country. In general these objectives are very clear:
- to generate hatred, conflict and division through deliberate atrocity
- to demoralise and destabilise Europe and create the conditions for the generalised persecution of European Muslims and an era of endless war in the Middle East
- to turn the continent against Muslim refugees in the hope that these refugees will turn back to Daesh.
- to demonstrate a global presence and an implacable power that will compensate for its military reverses
To achieve these objectives, Daesh would like us to believe that everyday life is impossible, that we can’t be safe anywhere, and that its legions of depressed, marginalized and sometimes mentally-ill murderers represent the vanguard of the Caliphate’s army in a new religious war.
And it’s precisely because these goals are so crude, blatant and clearcut that we mustn’t allow Daesh and its cohorts to fulfill them. 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.
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 many times 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 achieved.
Yet now more than ever, it’s essential that a fragile and fractious continent that is already seething with dangerous political forces doesn’t allow itself to be terrorised into becoming something monstrous.
And one way – perhaps the only way – to ensure that outcome,, is do what we can to protect ourselves, to hold onto our best traditions not reach towards our worst, and keep calm and carry on.