One could hardly have called the Paris terror attacks unexpected. After all, we are constantly being told that murderous plots are being foiled but that others are being planned. I was about to go to bed on Friday night when I noticed the headlines. I turned on the TV and watched the rolling news coverage for a couple of hours before retiring. I felt sad about those people, most of them gunned down in their prime, but perhaps I had been dwelling upon the darkness of the human soul for too long because all I saw were a few more tally marks on a seven digit number filed under ‘War on Terror’. Yes, they were closer to my living room that, say, Yemen or Palestine, but physical distance should not count for much when death is being considered.
And yet, the next morning it seemed like the whole world had changed. I walked to the corner shop to buy some milk just as it was getting light, and already someone had hung a giant French flag on a wall, presumably in solidarity. There was an intuitive feeling that something had changed on a deep level. As I drank my morning cup of tea and checked in on Facebook and various news sites it became immediately apparent that a very pungent genie had been let out of a bottle. Fear and anger bristled on the screen, alongside sorrow and solidarity. It might just have been a bunch of disaffected and murderous young men gunning down a collection of random civilians in a major European city, but the effect was as a bomb going off in the collective western psyche. Daesh had kicked the west in the goolies.
The blood had barely dried before French president François Hollande declared that his nation would be ‘pitiless’ in avenging the attacks. Jets were immediately dispatched to pound Daesh (as ISIS/ISIL/IS should properly be known - it is an insulting term that confers no legitimacy upon them, unlike the other acronyms) targets, and the president – who had been mocked as a ‘marshmallow’ – was afforded the strongman status he had so desired.
In Britain, too, the psychological ramifications were (and continue to be) deep. The shiny-faced David Cameron, who desperately wants us to be involved in bombing Syria but was thwarted by a popular resistance against such a plan, instantly appeared on television talking about ‘cutting off the head of the snake’ and proclaiming that “We’ll be bombing them by Christmas.” (I’m sure Christ will be happy.) A million fingers pointed at Syrian and Iraqi refugees, as if somehow this was their fault. “A refugee’s passport has been found at the scene of the massacre,” screamed the news and everyone nodded wisely and said “Told you so, you softy liberals.” Of course, when it later turned out to be false they didn’t shout quite so loud. In any case, what kind of suicide terrorist brings his passport to a massacre? Come on people, you can do better than this.
I, born in 1971, have never lived in a time of such hysteria. 9/11 came close, but even in the dark days of the Cold War, in which we children were told that we may, at any given moment, be given a four-minute warning before being nuked, this sense of hysteria was absent. Not so now. Perhaps it’s a side effect of rolling news channels, internet feeds tailored to suit one’s prejudices and social media, but it seems as if the effect of all this is an electronic catalyst for inflaming passions. In the past few days I have seen people – normal everyday people – call for all Muslims to be put in vast concentration camps, for refugees to be gunned down before they reach Europe and for the entire Middle East to be nuked. I have also seen suggestions that if you don’t agree with these sentiments you should be tied to a post and shot.
I’ll just get my blindfold …
But it pays to take a step back from this madness, take a deep breath and consider how we, individually or collectively, can work to de-fang the monster that has been unleashed. I’m not talking about Daesh exclusively, I’m talking about the cycle of violence that is growing like a whirlwind, sucking in ever more people as it spins wildly out of control. Daesh is like a fire elemental, conjured up by evil magicians. Those magicians - some of whom know full well what they are doing, others less so - are in both the east and the west. The fire tornado grows stronger and wider with every petrodollar donated by sympathetic nations and every bomb and bullet manufactured in the west and sent to the Middle East. There will be more massacres, for sure, whether it's London, or Copenhagen or wherever - we just don't know.
It also pays to realise some deeper truths. The conflict in Syria, which is fuelling so much fundamentalism and driving the tides of refugees moving towards Europe, is effectively a proxy war between the US and Russia. A deep trauma was inflicted on the Russian psyche after the battle of Stalingrad, in which over a million Russians were killed, and that trauma has never been allowed to heal. Germany, the aggressor, eventually lost the battle of Stalingrad after sustaining losses of several hundred thousand soldiers. But (west) Germany, following the war, was afforded the protection of the United States, which stepped in to the bombed out space to become the new global hegemon. As a result, Germany prospered, becoming one of the most successful industrial economies in the world. By contrast Russia, in the guise of the USSR, decayed from the inside out and eventually collapsed.
Before the USSR collapsed, it could have followed the time honoured tradition of trying to take down its enemies with it. They still had enough nuclear weapons to atomise most of mankind. But they didn’t. Instead, Mikhail Gorbachev, as General Secretary of the Communist Party, pursued a policy of peace in the spirit of glasnost (openness). World War III was avoided, but instead of reaching out to shake its outstretched hand, the west made a grab for Russia’s throat. Since then NATO has been expanding eastwards for the last quarter of a century and the west – especially the United States – has been gobbling up companies and resources like a bunch of hungry puppies let loose on a dog food factory. All notion of ‘consequences’ flew out the window. History was proclaimed to be dead, ‘we’ had defeated the evil empire and ‘we’ would thus endure endless prosperity as a result. Hooray for us!
Of course, the Russians never saw it like that. Perhaps not immediately, but they caught onto the fact that the concept of democracy was not all it was cracked up to be. For, instead of it meaning ‘the right to choose your own destiny’ in reality it manifested as an economic concept that simply meant your economy would be ‘reformed’ in a manner that made it easy for foreign multinationals to plunder it, that you would be offered a ‘choice’ to vote for one of two insipid pro business-as-usual parties, and that you would lose your rights as a worker. Westerners have so far not been able to understand this reluctance to embrace ‘democracy’, even as the ground is eaten out from under them while they congratulate themselves on being ‘free’.
Unlike western leaders, President Putin, whom Dmitry Orlov memorably described as ‘a shark who eats other sharks’ is not stupid. Having cracked down hard on the thugs and Mafiosi who were making life miserable for the average Russian, Putin is a pretty popular guy. He might have Chechen blood all over his hands, but frankly most Russians don’t care, and it’s not as if he has ever denied it. So, seeing the US and its NATO allies make a mess out of every country they interfere with - a growing list that includes Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Ukraine and many others - Putin has decided to draw the line at Syria, a country with which Russia has historic ties (and, let’s not forget, a strategically-important naval port). By launching bombing raids and committing ground troops to fight Daesh, Putin has (again) wrong-footed the increasingly inept-looking west. At the same time, by launching long-range cruise missiles that fly at altitudes lower than 100m, he has effectively sent the clear message: “Don’t mess with us.” With its ability to block NATO military communications, Russia has sent a very clear signal that it could take out US forces - a truth recently echoed by an American army commander "Russia would annihilate US in head to head battle".
If there is to be no reconciliation with Russia and a chance for the country to heal its deep-seated wounds, then it appears that Putin will simply act in a unilateral fashion until the west comes along, cap in hand, asking to join him. Which they are (see today’s Guardian: “Putin: from Pariah to Powerbroker in one year”).
I don’t think there’s much doubt that before last Friday the United States and its allies were not much interested in destroying Daesh. There was much hand-wringing and saying ‘something must be done with these barbarians’, but on the other hand there was much profitable reaping of the whirlwind to be had. An endless war in the Middle East is endlessly profitable for the elite classes who parasitise our societies. Stocks in weapons manufacturers have jumped since Friday, national governments across Europe are suddenly able to award themselves sweeping powers, and the obedient mainstream media beats the drums for war louder than ever, whipping up the citizens into a frenzy of blood lust. To point out that our allies, such as Saudi Arabia, are funding Daesh – using money that we gave them to satisfy our oil addiction – is to invite ridicule. To point out that over a million have died in Iraq in an illegal oil war is to be labeled a ‘peacenik’. To ask why there was no similar outcry over the bombing in Lebanon the day before, or why such little fuss was made when a Russian plane full of holidaymakers was blown out of the sky over Egypt is to invites puzzled looks. 2,000 dead in Nigeria – yawn. “You have no respect for the dead in Paris!” arises the cry from the army of social media soundbiters whose profile pictures are uniformly plastered in the tricolor as if it means something.
Nevertheless, despite all this, there does remain some hope and it comes from the same place as the hopelessness. The mainsteam forms of communication are losing their power. They change their allegiances so often that it’s hard not to think of Winston Smith in 1984 trying to remember which country they were currently at war with or allied to - Eurasia or Eastasia - and what atrocities the enemy is supposed to have committed:
“They have attacked an unarmed village with rocket bombs and murdered 4,000 defenseless, innocent and peaceful citizens of Oceania. This is no longer war. This is cold-blooded murder. Until now, the war has been conducted with honor and bravery with the ideals of truth and justice in the best traditions of mankind... until this moment. Brothers and sisters, the endless catalog of beastie atrocities which will inevitably ensue from this appalling act must, can, and will be terminated. The forces of darkness and treasonable maggots who collaborate with them must, can, and will be wiped from the face of the Earth. We must crush them! We must smash them! We must stamp them out! We the people of Oceania and our traditional allies, the people of Eurasia, will not rest until a final victory has been achieved. Death of the eternal enemy of Oceania. Death! Death! DEATH!” From 1984
It is to be hoped that emotions and fiery opinions may burn bright and burn out fast. But the drivers that put in motion current events are like deep ocean currents and for the time being these forces will have to play themselves out. The politicians and global military industrial complex demand our participation and ask that we join in unthinkingly - but we still have the free will to refuse to do so. A friend of a friend wrote something on Facebook the other day that I am going to paraphrase here:
“Here in France it’s just gone 11 O’clock and almost nobody has paid any attention to the decree that we observe two minutes’ silence. Life went on as normal, people spoke to one another in the streets and shops and carried on with their everyday lives. Yet every news site is saying that we are all fell silent when we didn’t – it’s all a gross exaggeration. This is just to let you know that most people here know they are being manipulated and refuse to be part of the narrative of a war machine.”
For my own part I decided to simply shut off all forms of electronic information on Saturday and instead gathered a handful of acorns and ash keys, 25 in total (that was all I could find). I planted them in pots of soil and with each one expressed the wish that by the time it had grown to maturity, so too would humankind, for the only way for a fire elemental to be dissipated is with an opposite element, such as earth or water. Call it a prayer for peace, if you like.
And perhaps it would also do us well to recognise that the world is changing into a different form which will be uncomfortable for many of us living cosseted lives. Our public institutions are crumbling, our financial and political systems are rigged and corrupt, our resources are becoming more scarce and unaffordable, and our ability to project power upon the rest of the world is waning. These things are simply what happens to civilisations in old age: there is nothing new under the Sun. The more energy we expend in fighting this change, the less there will be that is worth saving when we eventually face reality. Old forms die, new forms are born – it has always been this way. We consider it a ‘right’ that we should be able to drive cars, eat expensive meals in fancy restaurants and enjoy being showered in consumer goods, but we don’t accept that with every right there is a responsibility. We stand by and allow our governments to reduce foreign countries to rubble with barely a peep, and we turn a blind eye while the corporations that are given protection by those same governments plunder resources, pollute the environment and treat people as commodities to be exploited.
I know it’s a tall order to ask for these things to be understood – especially when the news media obsesses about such minutiae as whether the latest James Bond film (the fable of an emotionally-crippled man who travels around the world murdering people for the geopolitical advantage of his country – a character originally conceived of as high satire but now admired as a role model) has earned more money than some other film, or whether a television commercial for a shop is ‘genius’ or not. But we have to try. We have to wriggle free somehow. My kids know it’s all false, other kids I speak to know it’s all false, even some adults are starting to realise it’s all false. And therein lies some hope.