Terror and tragedy and what?

Friday night was a great night out for me. Beers and punk shows and hanging out with friends and dancing in a house project in Friedrichshain. We were drunk, happy, surrounded by friendly faces and invulnerable. I wonder now, just how happy, confident and invulnerable the Parisian partygoers had felt. Sipping wine, flirting, boasting and joking as they sat on the terrace. How at ease and excited were the fans of Eagles of Death Metal? Did they feel the same as I did, like I have many times on the best Friday nights, before the world turned?

When I left the bar I said goodnight to my friend, a French woman who was visiting me over the weekend. She was staying down the street but the next morning I was expecting both the delivery of a new mattress and herself to turn up with her luggage. When I woke up I found that she had sent me a text message overnight. I found out that while we had partied in Berlin, over 40 people in Paris had been killed and many more seriously injured and teetered on the edge of death themselves.

Maybe before it happened, they had felt just like us.

At first, I took the news quite matter of factly. In fact, my first thought upon reading the news, I am ashamed to say, was not even concern for the feelings of my friend, who is not a Parisian and has resided outside of France for many years. Instead I thought of Beirut, which had been struck by IS suicide bombers just the day before, and wondered if this was a connected attack.

I’m not going to lie and say that I shed any tears over the news from Beirut. Or even Paris, at first. But Beirut, well, I took it as just another piece of news. There was a war on, right? But Lebanon is not Syria and the suicide bombings were a tragedy, not just another Thing That Happens Over There. It was ‘News’ with a capital N, just like all but the most naive of us know, that if we choose to read and listen, that there is all sorts of awful, depressing, outrageous news of war, suffering, starvation, slavery and exploitation and all manner of atrocity always there and if you really wanted to listen to it and look at it all and really, really open your mind to it it seems like your psyche would fold under the sheer despair of it all. So we don’t look or we don’t listen. We just, you know, box it away. Minimize the window. Save it for later. We all have our lives to live. We all have more visceral, personal, pressing concerns. I need to make dinner, what should I buy? The bicycle wheel needs replacing. I’m supposed to meet a friend for coffee in an hour. My essay is due tomorrow. I need to get a new job or I won’t be able to pay rent in a month. Does she really love me?  And so on. Some of these things are easily done, some take up some serious emotional energy. So we sideline global events and focus on what seems more immediate and manageable. And that’s fine, and it’s human. But box away too much, and one can become too complacent, or worse, construct a narrative frame for themselves in which this suffering is present but somehow tolerable, or even justified. We hide from not just our own natural empathy for the suffering of others, but from our complicity.

I could not box away the Paris attacks like I did the Beirut one and get on with my weekend plans like nothing happened. My friend was not from Paris, did not live there but she had been frantically communicating with friends and family in the wake of these attacks. I have many French friends, and some in the capital but they were all thankfully unharmed. Other friends from other countries had been visiting the city. They were also fine. One had tickets to Eagles of Death Metal but had had to cancel her trip. My friend is a journalist, she was bombarded with calls from her bosses to fly back and get to work. But she would not, and we tried to carry on with the party weekend. It was hard not to see how she was affected. On social media, I checked with my other French friends, to see if they had lost anyone. Again, thankfully they have not, but they were all shocked. I heard disbelief, rage, fear, nihilist despair and even black humour. I had no one in Beirut to ask, as much as I would like to. Over the weekend and around friends, we did not mention the Paris attacks. Only from time to time, did we speak a little about our feelings, and that not much. She did not feel safe, and was worried about potential danger on European soil from IS in the future. Terrorism of this kind is despicable but it’s easy to see how effective it can be. We tried to box it out, because we wanted to live and use the first time we had seen each other in two years for fun. We succeeded, more or less, but it took some effort, and we are still in a kind of daze, trying to make sense of it all.

This was emotionally close to me in a way that Beirut could not be. And I guess that this story is the same for many of the people around me in Western Europe. France is nearby, we are together in the European Union. We have French friends and family, we studied French history and literature, eaten French food and drank French wine, listened to French music at parties and admire French film directors. Maybe we even learned the language. Europe is not one big country and yet the French are in this ‘in group’ with me. The victims speak a language I understand and belonged to a culture I am familiar with and just before their deaths, doing more or less what I do on Friday nights without fear. I would say that by no means are French lives more important than Lebanese, or anyone else’s lives. Even as an EU citizen, I don’t see what happened as an attack on ‘my territory’, or ‘my people’. But this did affect me more, because of how it affected my friends. Just the same way that a fatal fire that happens in your friends or next door neighbour’s house is more emotionally devastating than reading in the newspaper about one that happened in New York.

I’ve had a dread of social media since I was told of the attacks. It’s depressingly predictable. Affected sentimentality. Racism. Hashtag bandwagon-jumping slacktivism. Tough-guy posturing and militarism from some, empty hippy-dippy platitudes from others. Tasteless jokes and ignorance. The tired old ‘clash of civilisations’ nonsense. Calls for the closing of borders. ‘I told you so!’s from Nazi closet cases. Calls to ban Islam, or religion in general. Quotations and gaffes from celebrities and politicians and who gives a fuck. Backlash and counter-backlash and counter-counter-backlash. People seizing this tragedy as a launching point for their prejudice, and other well-meaning people arguing against them. I felt sick looking at the facebook login screen, knowing that I was going to enter this cacophony of rage and confusion, hatred and fear and sorrow all echoing in the void, an overwhelming reverberating scream that is still ongoing.

Yet I did log in, and message a few people I was worried about. But I couldn’t deal with all the shit I was seeing. I still tried to block it out. I’m not proud, but I wasn’t ready to engage with everyone. I played an hour or so of my new videogame. I ordered my army of futuristic warriors and robots around a shattered city on an imaginary planet, devastating my monstrous enemies. Click-click boom-boom. Then roll the victory cinematic, with macho posturing, cheesy one-liners about war and sacrifice and honour and the sick feeling just got too much to handle. I love these escapist violent power fantasies. But this time I couldn’t look away from reality. So I quit my game and, still not ready for another dose of facebook. get to my blogging dashboard, and, at over 1400 words in, still don’t really know where I’m going with this. I just know I have nowhere else to go right now, and that this creeping despair is still sinking in.

Am I afraid? You bet I am. But I’m not afraid of getting blown up or shot. Even though I live in a European capital, the odds of being in the wrong place at the wrong time are just too small to change my life for. The loss of life is tragic, and we mourn for the dead but IS isn’t able to bring down our nations with bombs and they know it. The impact of terrorism isn’t in the people killed but in the psychological shockwaves suffered by the target population. I’m afraid, that in the aftermath of the attacks, in the spreading of rage and horror, that the terrorists will succeed in pushing Europe towards a mentality of war and fear. I’m afraid that powerful bigots like Trump and others like him desire to push a narrative of apocalyptic war just as much as IS do, and that the brutality of terrorist attacks will make it easy for them to advance further misery and exploitation of existing conflict zones in terms of preserving our safety, or worse, as vengeance.

I’m afraid that people around me will listen to the terrorists, listen to the fearmongering politicians and pundits and harden their hearts. Believing that the world is now too dangerous to offer some humanity to the less privileged, to refugees, immigrants, those of different races and creeds and unfairly othered and demonised, they will accept a call to compromise on the Enlightenment ideals of liberty, equality and brotherhood that the Tricolore stands for. This they will do for the sake of our security, for the sake of not having to fear whether your dark-skinned or muslim neighbour is an enemy, because they are already assumed to be and dealt with as such. They will not make any effort to understand the culture or situation of those who are different, because barbarians do not think like us and cannot be reasoned with. And they will turn a blind eye to the role of our own nations in perpetuating a cycle of violence in the Middle East while supporting repressive regimes that happen to play ball with us economically, because they are our outside the circle of empathy.

All the guns and bombs and pathetic ideology that IS can muster are as scary as kittens and aren’t worth a damn. What’s really scary is the IS that lurks inside the West itself. In the wake of a terrorist attack there are always people quick to take up the sword in the name of justice and defence but long to turn it on their own people and subjugate them. We have our own preachers of hatred, calling for us to harden our hearts and close our minds, saying that to become strong enough to stand up to the threat of terrorism we must regress to muscular religious fundamentalism, traditional oppressive hierarchies and xenophobic paranoia. These demagogues invoke the myth of western weakness and ‘decadence’in ways that parallel IS rhetoric. They say that we have become cowardly and weak, with our political correctness, multiculturalism and liberal intellectualism. That we should not extend the hand of friendship and fellowship because it will get bitten. I’ve seen this attitude from our leaders, our newspapers and sadly, even some of my friends.

But even if I’m afraid, I’m not weak and I won’t be intimidated into hardening my heart. Not by IS, not by Al-Qaeda, not by Trump or The Kremlin, Britain First, Le Front National, The Daily Mail or by anyone. I’m going to live my life, go out to concerts and welcome anyone who wants to be my friend and neighbour. I am an atheist and not shy about saying so, and I would like one day to see humanity abandon religion, but I will not hold followers of Islam or any religion today responsible for the actions of a hateful sect. The religious and non-religious alike can agree to live in tolerance and co-operation, and for that to happen, we must practice it among ourselves, even under threat of attack from bigots like IS. And we must practice this abroad, even if this means criticising our own government and leaders and asking ourselves hard questions about how the stability and relative prosperity of the west is related to the support of repressive regimes abroad. I condemn IS and terrorists everywhere with every fibre of my being, and that includes my fellow European citizens that would push us to oppression and violence. I will keep my heart and mind open, and my sympathy with the victims, for the bereaved in Paris and the refugees fleeing Syria. For Lebanon and Nigeria and all the others.

As I finish this blog, it’s Friday again. Again, I am going out to party. As a European, as an immigrant, an atheist and as a lover of art and freedom and love and liberty, death metal, punk rock and this wonderful ‘decadent’ European culture. I’m going to a place to see my friends and neighbours who are Europeans, Americans, Africans, Middle Eastern people and Asians all hanging out together, enjoying food and music together, making friends and lovers, speaking over 8 different languages at one bar and not giving a fuck. A place where refugees are welcome and racism, sexism, and homophobia are not. And as we drink and dance and sing without fear, we shall spit in the eye of IS, Daesh, ISIL or whatever you want to call those fuckers.

Update:

Not everything I’ve seen on social media made me gloomy.

Love you, France.

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~ by theserpentscircle on November 17, 2015.

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