Independent on Sunday, 28 June 2015
Attacks such as last Friday’s target not only innocent people, but our sense of proportion, too
Over the past few years, the effects of shock have become all too familiar. There’s the initial jolt on hearing the news of another terrorist attack, followed by a sensation of dread: how many people have lost their lives this time? The speed with which pictures appear on television and social media means that we barely have time to prepare ourselves; as details begin to emerge, it’s impossible not to feel a mixture of powerful emotions, including anger, fear and a kind of helpless sympathy for the victims.
It’s happened again over the past couple of days. On Friday morning, police and camera crews rushed to an industrial site in eastern France where a severed head had been discovered on a fence. The President, François Hollande, hurried back from Brussels as other European leaders offered commiserations over the second terrorist attack in France in six months. This latest in a nightmarish series of beheadings created a sombre mood, and then news broke of further attacks in Tunisia and Kuwait. Within hours, pictures began to emerge of towels thrown over the bodies of holiday-makers on a tourist beach in Sousse.
The shock most people feel in the face of these events is justified; it is what divides us from the individuals who commit such atrocities. But shock can also be paralysing, creating a feeling of impotence. I was in a bar in Soho on a spring evening in 1999 when a nail bomb went off in a nearby pub, and I will never forget the scene in Old Compton Street shortly afterwards. I had nightmares and flashbacks for months afterwards; I couldn’t settle in an enclosed space until I had checked the position of all the exits. A fresh terrorist atrocity brings back some of those feelings, and each time I have to remind myself of the importance of emotional resilience.
Fear and paralysis are the point of such attacks; they aim to destroy our sense of proportion, exaggerating the power of organisations such as Islamic State (Isis) and al-Qaeda. Isis has claimed responsibility for two of Friday’s atrocities but such claims should be treated with caution; it claimed to be behind the mass murder of tourists at the Bardo museum in Tunis in March this year but the Tunisian government believes that an al-Qaeda splinter group actually carried out the attack.
Islamist terror organisations resemble a franchise that individuals can buy into at different levels. Some followers are actively recruited in mosques or online but an overarching ideology of sadistic violence also attracts psychopaths, the mentally disturbed and people with grudges. The Kouachi brothers, who murdered 11 people inside the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris in January, were radicalised through familiar channels, including the influence of several well-known Islamist clerics. Their route to terrorism was very different from that of Man Haron Monis, the lone gunman who demanded an IS flag after taking hostages at a café in Sydney last December. Three people died when the siege ended, including Monis himself, who had a long criminal record and was suspected of involvement in the murder of his wife.
Empathy is one of the reasons why we are so shaken by the stories of people caught up in these dreadful events. It was hard to listen to the harrowing stories of individuals searching for missing family members in Sousse without imagining ourselves in the same situation. But empathy is exactly what the jihadists set out to destroy, appealing to those darker currents of human nature that civilised societies do their best to suppress. Last August, when a video of the beheading of an American journalist appeared on the internet, I suggested that the media shouldn’t publish stills from it. I have no desire to watch anyone being tortured but I was also convinced that Isis was engaged in a calculated exercise of escalating visual shocks, which has since proved to be the case. As well as beheading videos, it has produced footage of a young Jordanian pilot being burned alive and, only last week, a slick underwater video of desperate men drowning in a cage.
Isis will go on producing this kind of horrific propaganda as long as it has an audience, and among its viewers will be some young men who are as excited by sadistic violence as they are by religious extremism. The organisation has a range of offers, in other words, from an eschatological ideology that promises a shortcut to paradise to the chance to indulge in an orgy of unrestrained cruelty.
I have no doubt that David Cameron was as shocked as any of us on Friday but it didn’t help that he went on to automatic pilot, describing Islam as a “religion of peace”. The reality is that religions consist of competing wings, and followers of both Christianity and Islam have on occasion claimed scriptural authority for murder and torture. Last week, a leading jihadist and spokesman for Isis, Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, released an audiotape threatening a “calamity for kafirs [non-Muslims]” during Ramadan. That was only three days before Friday’s multiple terrorist attacks.
On this occasion the dead include holidaymakers, worshippers at a Shia mosque and the manager of a French transport company, who could never have imagined he would be the target of such barbarism. Previous Islamist attacks this year have claimed the lives of several cartoonists, a Muslim police officer, Jewish shoppers, a Danish filmmaker, Nigerian villagers and Egyptian Christians. I don’t think we should ever stop being horrified by such events but we need to be clear-headed about the nature and scale of the threat. The jihadists hate everybody but they aren’t Nazi Germany. They will fail because all they have to offer is cruelty and death.