Wednesday 24 May 2017

The world was troubled 40 years ago, and it's troubled today - but in a different way...

A Turkish police officer questions a young Kurdish boy in Diyarbakir. Photo: Getty
A Turkish police officer questions a young Kurdish boy in Diyarbakir. Photo: Getty

Fergal Keane

In all memories there should be at least one golden summer. Forty years ago this July, I was enjoying the best summer of my life. Cork was a city of shimmering heat, of long hot days, and nights when the light never seemed to leave us. It is as clear as if it were yesterday, a short but magnificent season of gifts.

The city seemed framed in endless twilight. The intimate geography of those days is embedded in my memory: the early hours stillness of Glasheen Road, Orchard Road, Wilton Fields; the sun glowing behind the golden domes of the Church of the Holy Spirit, a flash of the Byzantine on Europe's westernmost shores; late at night hearing the wildfowl on the Lough as I walked back to my grandmother's home in Turners Cross; listening to Neil Young's Harvest in Ger O'Leary's house on the Western Road while his family was on holidays in distant Fountainstown. We were still half children, feasting on the endless ice cream in his deep freeze in the last days before we discovered beer.

The car in which Christopher Ewart-Biggs and his secretary Judith Cook were murdered by the IRA. Photo: NPA/Independent collection
The car in which Christopher Ewart-Biggs and his secretary Judith Cook were murdered by the IRA. Photo: NPA/Independent collection

We were oblivious to anything but the possibilities of each day. It is tempting, when I see my own children struggle to make sense of the fear and anger enveloping the world now, to regard that summer as belonging to a more innocent age. But it would be wrong. We were cocooned in Cork in that summer of '76 but the world was still a troubling place.

In Cambodia the Khmer Rouge were accelerating their genocide and the forced removal of the urban population into the countryside. Hundreds of thousands were being done to death. In Argentina a military coup would usher in the 'dirty war' in which as many as 30,000 people were murdered, most 'disappeared' by death squads. Across much of South and Central America, right-wing regimes, backed by the United States, were inflicting unspeakable horrors on their opponents and anybody deemed vaguely suspect.

In Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union millions were locked in the claustrophobic repression of totalitarian rule. Lebanon was beset by a civil war of extraordinary savagery; terrorist groups were hijacking planes - it was the year of the Entebbe rescue - and assassinating 'class enemies'; in South Africa a student uprising in Soweto was crushed by the apartheid state leaving 600 dead and thousands jailed and exiled. In the rest of Africa coups and civil wars continued in, what was then, the normal fashion.

A general gloom was descending on Britain and by the end of the year the Callaghan government was forced to beg the IMF for a bailout of nearly $4bn to avoid economic catastrophe.

Mao Zedong
Mao Zedong

In the North, sectarian murder went on unabated. It was the year of the Kingsmill massacre when 10 Protestant factory workers were killed in retaliation for the deaths of members of two Catholic families at the hands of loyalists. The Shankill Butchers were abducting Catholics and torturing them to death. In the Republic the British Ambassador, Sir Christopher Ewart-Biggs, was killed by the IRA.

There was much more to unsettle the global picture. America was foundering. In the previous two years Richard Nixon had resigned in the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam war was finally lost, the mightiest power on earth scrambling to escape Saigon as the North Vietnamese rolled into town. Gerald Ford was fighting for re-election as a decent but uninspiring leader. In China the 'Great Helmsman' Chairman Mao died after inflicting incalculable suffering on his people. In much of Asia autocracy and one party rule were the norm.

I recall all of this simply for the sake of perspective. There were many reasons to be afraid then. A nuclear Armageddon was always a possibility in spite of growing detente.

What is it that makes this period different? Social media is part of the story. I try to picture what life would have been like with endless tweets and rolling news channels bringing us updates from the killing fields, the Lebanon war, and so on. Twitter and Facebook are the apostles of the End of Days. Social media has brilliantly exploited our addictive need for stimulation, even if that stimulation is based on fear, the urge to click and be shocked. It has also given voice to a global army of bores, cranks and thugs whose influence on the temper of our times is insanely disproportionate.

An Isil unit in Syria. Photo: Reuters
An Isil unit in Syria. Photo: Reuters

But it is precisely the temper of our times that worries me most. What makes this time different from the summer of 1976 is the retreat from rationality. We see it everywhere. The big lie is more powerful than at any time since the 1930s. This is only partly to do with the rhetorical skill of people like Trump in America or the powerful propaganda of Putin in Russia.

Our real crisis is the willingness of so many to believe lies. When Primo Levi wrote of "monsters with beautiful words" beguiling people with messages of intolerance, he recognised that the real moral swamp was in the minds of the listeners. The combination of fear-based politics and absolute certainty in the validity of the solutions offered is the road to catastrophe. I have heard so often in recent months the mantra that "even if we have to go through some suffering it will be worth it in the end".

But it always issues from the mouths of those who have never experienced war and the horrors that ride in its wake. If you ask where you fit into all of this, then I say what I say to my own friends and family and, most of all, to myself: engage anger with fact, reject the toxic promises of the extremes, hold and build the centre ground.

Fergal Keane is a BBC Special Correspondent

A member of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Photo: AP
A member of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Photo: AP
Russian president Vladimir Putin
Russian president Vladimir Putin

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