Wednesday 17 July 2019

In Europe and beyond, nothing has changed — all is changing

VIGIL: Women break down in tears reading poignant messages for victims of the Nice massacre. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol
VIGIL: Women break down in tears reading poignant messages for victims of the Nice massacre. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

Fergal Keane in Nice

The sea is the same sea. I wake to the vivid ultramarine and the great southern sky. There are people taking the early morning air on the promenade. But it is not possible to say life is returning to normal, not when everybody has forgotten what normal means. Terror insinuates itself into the consciousness. We cannot shake our hands in rage at the terror of the 'lone wolf' as we might at an aircraft dropping bombs or an artillery man firing from across a front line. Terror walks among us, it slips a filter of mistrust across our eyes. So this morning I walked the Nice promenade. I nodded and smiled at citizens of many nations. We shared the stillness and the warm sun, and we looked into each other and beyond to the new world in which the public space can erupt in madness at any time. The same sea. The same sun. Nothing has changed. All is changing.

The night before I was crossing town by car. The taxi driver had seen the truck ploughing through the crowds. "It was horrible, horrible. I saw it all. The bodies were everywhere. My town! In my town can you believe? It happens everywhere but you never think here. Then it comes." I could see his eyes in the mirror. The man should have been at home with his family. He was traumatised and exhausted. But there was a living he had to make. And what would he do at home trying to explain to his wife what he had seen. "I cannot explain it," he said.

Can anybody? My first experience of terrorism was in Belfast in the 1980s. But there were certain rules. Large-scale killings of the opposing confessional group were mostly a thing of the past. Atrocities like Enniskillen captured headlines but terror was more about the relentless destabilisation of individual assassination. Neighbours watched and reported the movements of policemen, UDR men, Sinn Fein councillors, Catholics in flashpoint areas, businesspeople who supplied services to the security forces. "Each neighbourly murder", as Seamus Heaney called them. The primary purpose of terror is to instil fear. We live with suspicion of those with whom we share the same geographical space.

Yet in the North it was possible to mitigate this fear. The politics might have been a dialogue of the deaf for a long time but it was dialogue of a kind. It allowed a generation of politicians to come through who would eventually make peace. Civil society was strong. There were always more active peacemakers and advocates of co-existence than there were active haters. In that terrible week in March 1988 of Gibraltar, Milltown, the murder of the Corporals Wood and Howe, I experienced the dramatic escalation of communal fear caused by sustained acts of terror in a short period of time. Yet the centre held. Enough people had a stake in the future to disdain a return to the madness of the early 1970s.

The challenge offered by the lone wolf attackers like Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel is very different. He has captured the headlines, inserting himself into the narrative of terror in an explosion of rage. We know that he was a social outcast who drank and beat his ex-wife.

He fits the profile of so many modern terrorists for whom radical Islam provides the perfect home for their personal grievances and an alibi to act out their anger against others.

In France at the moment there is a bitter debate about whether such men are radicalised by fundamentalism or simply use it as an  excuse to expiate their violent resentments.

I am inclined to believe that Salafism is a perverse gift for angry, alienated, confused and, sometimes, mentally disturbed young men.

Some believe the theology but most are drawn by a desire for belonging. They need a simpler view of a world in which they exist without power, a context in which cruel violence has religious justification. The loser becomes briefly powerful and is willing to die and destroy others for this momentary spasm of glory.

Michael Stone in Belfast acted in the name of the UDA/UFF but he was ostensibly a lone wolf, a rare one. Paramilitary structures militated against the kind of individual atrocities carried out in Nice.

Modern France has no paramilitary armies but it has plenty of alienated young men. Who needs an AK47 or Semtex when you can hire a truck and mow down civilians?

The state has floundered in its response to the terrorist threat. Political complacency has led to security failures. There has been neither the coordinated intelligence response or emphatic outreach in Muslim communities that followed the 7/7 attacks in Britain, for example. At times it can feel that France's idea of itself - the home of all colours and faiths united by language and the values of the Enlightenment - is a palliative, a delusion that allows the politicians to bumble on blindly, ever deeper into the mire. France is France, eternal and glorious, and it will triumph. I am not so sure about that. President Hollande has not told us what victory will look like. Does it mean an end to all terrorist violence? A society in which the rage of and resentment of the forgotten suburbs is ameliorated?

In the North, and in Britain post 7/7, lessons were learned. The greatest challenge for French intelligence and police is securing the trust of those who can supply them with information, not information after the fact when everybody is upset and willing to talk, but before dangerous men like Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ever get the chance to act. Of course, it is not a guarantee against violence of the kind inflicted here in Nice. But the dividends of trust can be enormous.

The most unsettling thing about the multiple crises of the last year or so is the sense that nobody in power is in control.

Momentum lies with the killers. The consequence is rising public fear. With presidential elections next year, the possibility of the far right National Front gaining power becomes more real. Hollande has little time left to prove at least competence in facing the threat posed by terror.

I was still absorbing the horror of Nice when Twitter began erupting with news out of Turkey.

Jets flying low over Ankara and troops blocking the bridges over the Bosphurus. In these weeks when anything happens at any time I shouldn't have been surprised.

But a coup in Turkey just felt so incredibly like a hark back to the dark ages of the seventies and eighties.

As I made my way to Istanbul, more than ever a citizen of a confused world, I heard the coup was failing; nearly 200 people dead; crowds in the streets; a soldier beheaded in public.

This is the unravelling history of our age.

It is fascinating and frightening and it belongs to us all.

Fergal Keane is a BBC Special Correspondent

Sunday Independent

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