Originally published in Standpoint
This is how it happens these days, isn’t it? Last February it was during an interval at the theatre, turning on my mobile phone to find a text from a friend in Copenhagen saying the bullets had just missed her but that she was alive. A few weeks earlier, it had been a broadcaster asking for reaction on Paris before I had heard anything about it or whether any friends had been killed. This time it was a text from a close family member at a dinner in Paris I had chosen to miss in order to try to finish my book on Islam and Europe. They said there had been shooting nearby but they were fine. I texted back that perhaps they should get the bill and go home. Soon the phone began to ring and snapshots of the horror in Paris began to flood in.
The crazy ring-arounds have become a feature of modern European life. Then the lucky ones have the stories of the near-misses: friends who left before the attack, those who survived because they chose to drop their bag off at home before heading to the restaurant. Facebook has a new feature where people can signal themselves “safe” after a major incident anywhere. There is something comforting and horrifying about this. It’s not a surprise to me because I know this is normal life in Israel. But Israel’s normal has become Europe’s normal — a fact that is difficult to accept.
The challenge to modern Europeans seems to me to be this: how do we stop just being sad? After Charlie Hebdo everyone said they were Charlie. Instead of everybody in Paris holding up cartoons of Muhammad to show they would not live under Islamic blasphemy law everyone held up a pencil or changed their Facebook status to “Je Suis”. And after a few days it melted away into nothing. After Copenhagen it was all a bit more half-hearted: fewer people killed, fewer people with friends there. After the latest attacks in Paris there was the posting of tricolores, yet another vigil in Trafalgar Square in “solidarity”. Late the next night I went to the French embassy: silent and deserted save for bouquets of flowers and some candles still guttering. “How many times are we going to have to do this?” I kept thinking. How regular do our trips have to be to show solidarity, or grief? And what — beyond grief — can French or other European citizens do? Are we an entirely passive people? Can we be anything more than mourners at our own funeral?
There is a man who turns up after terrorist attacks with a keyboard and plays John Lennon’s “Imagine”. This time he turned up the day after the Paris atrocities and played the song outside the Bataclan theatre where concertgoers had been gunned down by the jihadists. Channel 4 News, among others, was much taken by this spectacle. I think it almost insulting.
Among the victims inside that concert hall were a number of wheelchair-users whom the Islamists reportedly lined up and then shot one by one. One of the survivors of the massacre, a young woman, wrote afterwards: “As I lay down in the blood of strangers and waiting for my bullet to end my mere 22 years, I envisioned every face that I have ever loved and whispered I love you, over and over again, reflecting on the highlights of my life.” The response to this and to the people who do it must obviously be measured and thoughtful. But it must also be comprehensive and aware of what we are facing. Not to be too flippant, but that man with his keyboard is part of the problem.
“Imagine there’s no countries/It isn’t hard to do/Nothing to kill or die for/And no religion too.” Thank you, yes, we have imagined all of that, and we’ve tried some of it. And it’s a big part of the problem.
Perhaps it is inevitable in the wake of such an attack that the politicians of the status quo begin to fight for their political lives. Yet even among these, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker stands out as especially contemptible. Two days after the attack (when it seemed that at least one of the attackers was a “refugee”) Juncker declared, “There are no grounds to revise Europe’s policies on the matter of refugees.” He went on to explain that the Paris attacker were “criminals”, not “refugees or asylum-seekers”. Unfortunately he did not have time to tell us what system his Commission has in place to differentiate these two at the point of arrival. He did, however, find time to say that he “would invite those in Europe who try to change the migration agenda we have adopted to be serious about this and not to give in to these basic reactions that I do not like”. Apart from the Marie Antoinette-ish tone, is there not something remarkable about an EC president saying that it was those of us who warned about the consequences of his migration policy who were not serious? We are the only ones who have been serious all along.