There were a lot of tributes after the horror in Paris. It has to be said that Trafalgar Square is an odd choice of venue to show solidarity with France; presumably Waterloo was too busy. One of the most appropriate tributes was Adele dedicating Hometown Glory to Paris, just as the raids on St-Denis started. A song about south London where, 10 years ago, armed police decided to hysterically blow the face off a man just because he was a bit beige.
In times of crisis, we are made to feel we should scrutinise our government’s actions less closely, when surely that’s when we should pay closest attention. There’s a feeling that after an atrocity history and context become less relevant, when surely these are actually the worst times for a society to go on psychopathic autopilot. Our attitudes are fostered by a society built on ideas of dominance, where the solution to crises are force and action, rather than reflection and compromise.
If that sounds unbearably drippy, just humour me for a second and imagine a country where the response to Paris involved an urgent debate about how to make public spaces safer and marginalised groups less vulnerable to radicalisation. Do you honestly feel safer with a debate centred around when we can turn some desert town 3,000 miles away into a sheet of glass? Of course, it’s not as if the west hasn’t learned any lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan. This time round, no one’s said out loud that we’re going to win.
People seem concerned to make sure that Islam gets its full share of the blame, so we get the unedifying circus of neocons invoking God as much as the killers. “Well, Isis say they’re motivated by God.” Yes, and people who have sex with their pets say they’re motivated by love, but most of us don’t really believe them. Not that I’m any friend of religion – let’s blame religion for whatever we can. Let’s blame anyone who invokes the name of any deity just because they want to ruin our weekend, starting with TGI Friday’s.
The ringleader, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, evaded detection by security services by having a name too long to fit into one tweet. How could the most stringent surveillance in the world not have picked up Abdelhamid Abaaoud before? I mean, they’d have got him even if they just went through lists of terrorists alphabetically.
We’re always dealing with terror in retrospect – like stocking up on Imodium rather than reading the cooking instructions on your mini kievs. The truth is that modern governments sit at the head of a well-funded security apparatus. They are told that foreign military adventures put domestic populations at risk and they give them the thumbs up anyway. Charitably, the safety of their populations just aren’t of great concern to them. Realistically, domestic terrorist attacks play into their agenda: they allow them to grab ever more authoritarian powers with which to police their increasingly unequal and volatile societies. Of course, no one wants to believe that our government isn’t interested in our safety, just like everyone really wanted to believe that Jimmy Savile cared about whether kids got to meet Duran Duran.
It’s not an insult to the dead to wonder why France, a $2tn economy, couldn’t make a better offer to its disenfranchised youth than a bunch of sick bullies grooming them on the internet. It’s not apologism to try to understand why something happened. When Syria’s drought kicked in, 25% of the population became unemployed. The vast majority of the country’s livestock has died over the past decade. A lot of Isis are farmers with nowhere to go, their entire industry destroyed – you’d think they’d have more sympathy for journalists. Those who think radicalising a youngster has nothing to do with climate – have you seen Tatooine?
No one is saying climate change causes terrorism. Stop thinking that a global death cult is caused by one thing – it’s a complex situation involving several different countries and ideologies, not a rattling sound in your washing machine. Personally, I think that for all our blaming religion, there will be peace in the Middle East when the oil runs out. But knowing their luck, then somebody will invent a way of making fuel by mixing sand and falafel.
Maybe the west’s approach is right. After all, if you’ve got a massive fight in, say, a pub car park, the best way of solving it is clearly standing well back and randomly lobbing in fireworks. You can’t get rid of an ideology by destroying its leaders; you’d think if there’s anything “Christian” countries should know, it’s that. Europe has rejected the death penalty on moral grounds, and yet we relax this view when it comes to a group who want to be martyred. You can’t bomb ideas. If your kid shits on the carpet, you can’t stop them by bombing the person who invented shit – though it would tidy up ITV’s Saturday night schedule.
Andrew Neil went viral with an impassioned eulogy that, like most eulogies, was just inaccurate nonsense in the form of nice memorable words strung together with angry sad words. A speech that would have made those named within it proud, but only because a good few of them were nihilistic absurdists. Listing the great French thinkers in a tribute to nuclear power showcased the worst aspect of historical fame: these were figures Neil could name but appeared to know nothing about.
For a list supporting the French government’s foray into bombing its former colony he chose Satie, a composer so questioning of state he put a question mark into La Marseillaise; Zola, a man so adamant about the function of a fair and full trial he may have been murdered for his beliefs; Rousseau – “Those who think themselves masters of others are greater slaves than they”; Ravel, who rejected all state honours; Gauguin, a passionate defender of indigenous peoples; and Camus, the great Algerian-born philosopher, who died in 1960, a year before he would’ve been thrown into the Seine at the orders of the Nazi head of the Parisian police.
Out of his list of peacenik, thoughtful, anti-government icons, one of the few who might have been in favour of bombing Syria was Sartre, and that’s only because he thought we were all dead anyway. Of course, we mustn’t forget Coco Chanel, who Neil threw on to the list in such a blatant “if we don’t include a woman we’ll get into trouble” rush, he didn’t notice a quick wiki would reveal her to be a Nazi spy. These are the people who made France great, because what they asked of France was to question, to look death in the eye, to commit to full trials and never resort to military force, to step away from government, away from indigenous lands, to never see themselves as superior, and most, most of all, for people to stop regurgitating rhetorical cliches and think for themselves.
Neil asked us to consider who will be remembered in 1,000 years, and the answer of course is Thkkkkkkkzzzzxrrkksd, the insane Cockroach Emperor, who revolutionised the mining of our bones for fuel. But let’s go with his conceit. A thousand years is a long time; the first book published in French wasn’t until 1476. Goodness knows what an Islamic caliphate would have been doing 1,000 years ago? They built the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, one of the first universities in the world; they asked scholars of all faiths to translate every text ever written into Arabic; they demanded the first qualifications for doctors, founded the first psychiatric hospitals and invented ophthalmology. They developed algebra (algorithms are named after their Arab father) and a programmable machine … a computer. They introduced Aristotle to Europe, Al-Jahiz began theories of natural selection, they discovered the Andromeda galaxy, classified the spinal nerves and created hydropower using pumps and gears.
And Neil is right – we don’t remember any of that. Not to say that this is what Isis want – Isis are like the group that closed the House of Wisdom, the next caliphate who decided science was irreligious. Isis want to destroy the knowledge that Islam is a beautiful, scientific and intelligent culture, and we are way ahead of them.
We want Paris to be remembered in 1,000 years and we don’t remember the names of the victims 10 minutes after reading them – we don’t remember Amine Ibnolmobarak, a Moroccan émigré who was designing an architectural solution to the 2,000 deaths at Mecca; we don’t remember Elsa Delplace and her mother Patricia San Martin, who died shielding Delplace’s young son from bullets. We remember that the female terrorist was blond and one had no pants on. We remember that the terrorists came in with refugees even though they don’t seem to have done, especially since they were all French or Belgian. We expect our descendants to remember Daft Punk and we don’t even remember that invading Iraq caused the birth and rise of Isis. And we won’t remember any of this once the new series of Britain’s Got Talent starts.