Eilis O'Hanlon: Self-hating liberals paralysed by 'artists' of terror
There is a shameful refusal of many to defend European civilisation from its enemies.
American novelist Don DeLillo once wrote that terrorists are the pre-eminent artists of our age. It is their visions that haunt our collective imagination. Their creations which, using the mass media as a tool where other artists used pen or paintbrush, take our consciousness hostage. There was no more horribly vivid illustration of that than the murder of a British soldier on a street in London last week.
It wasn't simply that Drummer Lee Rigby was killed, nor even that he was murdered in the midst of such an ordinary everyday scene. Two British soldiers were killed a couple of years ago outside Massereene Barracks in Co Antrim while awaiting a pizza delivery. The juxtaposition of horror and normality was just as striking on that occasion. What captured attention in London was the brutal nature of the beheading by men who then stood around with bloodied hands, watched by news cameras – instant celebrities.
Security experts have been expecting a homegrown attack on British soldiers for years, but it was the pictures, rather than the life lost, that may end up having the greatest impact. That's how terrorism works, through shock and awe, which is why it keeps evolving. Just when we start to get jaded, they present a new horror, each act designed to exploit some new fear inside us by making what is ordinary suddenly strange and threatening. It's how brainwashing works – disorient the victim first so he's more easily manipulated.
In the case of Islamist extremists, the plan is probably working better than even they expected, as disgust at what had happened was replaced by a desperate hunt for excuses among self-hating liberals eager to plumb the depths of whataboutery to find a reason why the attackers, who declared an intent to bring war to the streets of London, had been justified in feeling such murderous rage.
Yes, it was awful, but what about the innocent civilians killed every day by US drone strikes in Afghanistan? Yes, it was dreadful, but what about Britain's role in destroying Iraq? Five minutes earlier, the whataboutery brigade hadn't been giving a second thought to Iraqis or Afghans (in Ireland it didn't stop us cheering Barack Obama, Drone-Bomber-in-Chief, when he plied us with platitudes during his visit). What's more, in a few days' time they'll have stopped caring. They aren't that bothered when Muslims kill Muslims, as happens with thousands of victims every week in Syria. Why is it only when western powers are responsible for the deaths of Muslims that some of us are outraged?
For that moment in London, though, leaping on to the bandwagon of others' tragedies became a device for not thinking about what had happened; and once the English Defence League came on to the streets to protest about the murder, an even better opportunity had arisen to condemn anti-immigrationists as the real enemy of the people, thereby ensuring that normal service could be resumed in the land of nice liberal denial.
So it always goes. Just as, after Boston, commentators couldn't wait to find a way to vilify the white Tea Party sympathisers who they'd hoped all along were to blame, so last week they were out proving their caring, compassionate credentials by reserving the greatest disapproval for small crowds of English nationalists, who hadn't beheaded anyone.
Maybe this evasion of the real issues is another way of coping with the unthinkable. You protect yourself against the existential horror of what just happened by trying to minimise its symbolic importance, saying it was a "lone wolf" attack with no broader political significance, or replacing it with trivial concerns that are easier to handle.
There's a deep cultural insecurity at play here, a shameful refusal to defend the merits of European civilisation against its enemies – even as, irony of ironies, millions of them flock in our direction for a better life – which terrorists are right to interpret as weakness and surrender. It wasn't only the murder of Drummer Rigby that showed that. Last week in Paris another act of violence was carried out when 78-year-old historian Dominique Venner shot himself in the mouth in front of hundreds of visitors at Notre Dame.
A note written by Venner and read out on French radio said. "I am killing myself to awaken slumbering consciences."
This was a far easier gesture to defend than the beheading of an unarmed 25-year-old father of one. Dominique Venner harmed no one but himself. Yet there was no rush to justify, or even seriously explain, what he had done, for the simple reason that he had the audacity to belong to what was routinely described in the press as the "far right". He was against gay marriage. He was appalled by what he regarded as the "replacement" of the traditional French population by Muslim immigrants.
David Sessions of Newsweek blogged a piece placing Venner's act within the history of French fascism, name-checking anti-semitism, gay-bashing, "elitist, racist, social Darwinism" and the "Nazi-collaborating Vichy regime" along the way. He declared that the sentiments that Vanner wished to reinvigorate through his suicide were "anti-modern", at which point all hope of rational debate ceased. Who wants to be seen as "anti-modern", after all?
Well, Islamic fundamentalists do. They revel in being anti-modern. But while their desire to make blood sacrifices with other people's blood is treated as meaningful and deserving of serious political consideration, the sacrificing of his own life by another man was dismissed as the spiteful tantrum of some right-wing nutter who didn't like gay people and who deserved, in death, to be caricatured, mocked and ignored.
Venner's suicide may have been the epitome of intellectual vanity, just as his world view may have been unappealing. But when he spoke in his final essay of wanting to "recover the memory of what Europe stands for and which is being lost", it wasn't hard to find an echo of what was dismaying him in the mealy mouthed response to the murder that happened the next day in London.