Saturday 21 April 2018

Long trail of terror leading to nowhere

People come together to pray at an impromptu memorial near Las Ramblas in Barcelona. Photo: Susanna Vera.
People come together to pray at an impromptu memorial near Las Ramblas in Barcelona. Photo: Susanna Vera.

Fergal Keane

At the time of her death, Marianne Peusol was 14 years old, a child of the Parisian poor whose mother sold bread in the neighbourhood around the rue Saint Nicaise.

When the Royalist plotter, Pierre Robinault de Saint-Regent, offered her a handful of coins and asked her to hold the reins of a horse and cart for a few minutes on the evening of December 22, 1800, she gladly accepted the task.

Such small gifts were rare in the life of this child. He would be back soon, Marie was assured. Soon after that she was blown to pieces, along with about a dozen other people, becoming the first named victim in the history of modern terrorism.

Saint-Regent and a group of co-conspirators were attempting to assassinate Napoleon Bonaparte, Consul of France, who was due to pass the spot on his way to the opera. Napoleon did pass, and he survived the blast. There followed the most intense police investigation in French history up to that point, with many hundreds of the usual suspects rounded up, including Jacobins who had nothing to do with the plot but who were becoming a political nuisance.

The real plotters were ultimately caught and sent to the guillotine, having launched, with the first IED, the modern age of terror.

They would be followed through the centuries by bombers and assassins of many armies and none; righteous warriors spanning the globe in the name of causes great and small, and linked by a common contemptuous thread: the killers of Marianne Peusol cared nothing for the child's life. She belonged to the limitless sea of the poor and could be butchered in the name of the greater good of returning a king as ruler of France.

The Royalists would not have recognised Marianne Peusol as belonging to the same class of humanity as themselves. The man who inflicted carnage on Las Ramblas in Barcelona by ploughing his van into the holiday crowds saw his victims as less than human.

But unlike Saint-Regent for whom Peusol was 'collateral damage', Younes Abouyaaqoub, the suspected driver, saw the relaxed holidaymakers as the enemy.

He and his fellow plotters were men who proclaimed on social media that their first acts if they were to rule the world would be to "kill all the infidels".

The Islamist extremists wish us to believe that we are engaged in an existential struggle. Submit and convert or die. But they do not represent a threat to our future. They are not about to conquer the West. Nor are our values of tolerance - a constantly evolving social argument - about to be overthrown.

The governments of Europe have not been propelled into authoritarianism by terrorism. The great cities are not quaking in terror. Communities have not turned on each other. Populism flares but is pushed back. The people of Europe and their leaders are wise to the extremists' game.

The mass murderers have not gone away. And they will not for some time to come. The covered bodies, the frightened faces, the marchers proclaiming defiance in the face of terror - all these have become part of the image narrative of 21st-century life.

But something remarkable has happened in Europe over the past few years, a maturation of society and state, the capacity to absorb terror and take the longer view. We are much safer for it.


But while I laud wisdom in Europe, I cannot avoid the example of US President Donald Trump and his moral equivocation over Charlottesville, where another fanatic drove a vehicle into a crowd of people. Except that the language of intolerance and hate which has flourished in America in the age of Trump has had tragic consequences.

The death of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville is the criminal responsibility of the man who drove the car into that crowd. And the bigotry of the neo-Nazis and the KKK long pre-date this presidency.

But Trump's election has emboldened these fringe sects and they have been comforted by the false equivalence he drew between their march and the counter-demonstration of anti-racist, anti-fascist protesters. Words have consequences, as does the absence of words at critical moments.

The American far-right shares the ideology of racism and anti-semitism of its European counterparts. It is a creed that led to the Holocaust. There is only one proper response to resurgent fascism: condemn in clear terms and prosecute those who incite hatred.

The people can never be allowed to doubt where their president stands when confronted with this obscenity. Trump's first statement speaking of 'all sides' created such a doubt.

As I write, the president's chief strategist, Steve Bannon, has been shown the door, as the new chief of staff, John Kelly, tries desperately to rescue the Trump presidency. It may be too late for that.

While I am eternally wary of the phrase 'turning point' it is possible that Charlottesville and the killing of Heather Heyer may represent the defining moment of the age of Trump.

Who knows how it will end… with Robert Mueller and his team of forensic money trackers, a Republican revolt that ends in support for impeachment, or even Trump resigning before his enemies unite.

It is possible that he will see out the four-year term - but the odds are lengthening. When it all ends the people will be left to ponder how men with flaming torches and carrying Nazi flags were ever able to force their way to the forefront of public debate in 21st-century America.

Fergal Keane is a BBC special correspondent

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