To Bomb or not to Bomb? That is the question.
Why do they do it? Why would anyone do it? How did “normal” kids from Brussels, Paris or Bradford end up doing something like THAT? Something so extraordinary and terrible as detonate themselves on a tube train or get out of a car outside a Paris restaurant (my God I’ve BEEN to that restaurant, or restaurants just like it) and start firing an AK 47 through the window, murdering anybody, Christian, Moslem gay, straight male or female (my GOD, people just like ME) who had the bad luck or divinely directed destiny to be on the tube or in the restaurant at the time?
They must have been brainwashed, controlled by a mastermind, seduced away from the “normal” by something or someone inexplicable and demonic. They must be “other”, or have been made “other”…So we have to close the borders of “our world” and send the bombers to obliterate “theirs”.
It’s terrible, it doesn’t make us feel good…but what choice do we have…?
We have to destroy “them” before they destroy us.
That’s roughly what counts for a personal and political response to the new and terrifying “normality” that the attacks in Paris that seems to command consensus…if a degree of unease. To Bomb or Not to Bomb…that is the question. The opposition to bombing seems as predictable and obvious as the advocacy. Of course, they would say that! each side of this week’s argument in Britain says about the other.
To the majority, those on the “left” who argue against British forces joining in with the American, Russian and French air-forces in stirring up the rubble where an advanced, mixed, secular and complex Middle East Society used to be are entirely predictable “peacenixs”; beardy-weirdy pacifist types whose consciences would never permit any form of military action under any circumstances. While equally predictable to those who oppose the proposed “action” (whatever it amounts to) are equally unsurprised. Of course “they ” want to bomb people and make things worse, addicted as “they” are to oil and guns, to fantasies of force and control.
There are slightly more interesting – and more informed sounding – interventions on both the left and right which ask questions about the “endgame”…post conflict planning, coalition building. But these too seem predicated on the actual Syrians being regarded as a “them”, not like “us”. “They” are still people for whom religion is a powerful factor in their identity, as Sunnis and Shiites, as Alevis and Kurds…(it is amazing how few technical “ethnic” terms it takes to sound like an expert, whether as a pundit or on the Joint Intelligence Committee) How will we manage “them” afterwards?
It occurs to me that I’m using inverted commas a hell of a lot. This is because I’m increasingly feeling that there is a failure of language going on here as well as a poverty of political thought. I’m increasingly coming round to thinking that we should maybe try, just try on for size, a rather different way of thinking about “terrorism” (there I go again), using “culture” and “imagination” just to see where that gets “us.”
(There I go again)
So rather than just carry on with the exhausted, quotation marked ritual of just another argument, I’m going to get all post-modern…and quote things, and then examine them in a nice, safe cultural criticism kind of a way.
Example One: I Want It to Come Here
I want it to get worse! I want it to come HERE! I want to see it in an English house, and the floral chintzes and the school blazers and the dog leads hanging in the hall. I would like us to be tested. I would like a fugitive to run to our doors and say hide me…I would like the running bowels of fear over the English morning smell of gin and the roasting joint and hyacinth. I would like to see an English dog playing on an English lawn with part of a burned hand. I would like to see a gas grenade go off at an English flower show and nice English ladies crawling in each other’s sick. And all this I would like to be photographed and filmed so that someone a long way off, safe in his chair, could watch us in our indignity.
Who said that? Something as sick as that? Why, Glenda Jackson, love, on stage at the Aldwych in 1966 for the Royal Shakespeare Company as part of a semi-improvised show about responses to the Vietnam War (which war Kurt Vonnegut Juniors described at the time as a rehearsal for the more ruthless wars to come). It was called US…as in United States, of course, but also as in “us.”
Two things about it are remarkable, I think. One, is that the fantasy of Bringing the War Home isn’t just confined to the terrorists. That punishment of comfortable people whose political elites send the bombers to the Vietnams and the Afghanistans of the world while they enjoy a meal in a nice restaurant, that visceral violent application of the reality principle, that, (in the eyes of the terrorists) moral, aesthetic and educational act…was quite imaginable to the self-aware and guilty liberal conscience that is as much part of an English Country Garden as are the hyacinths. The other thing is, that in 1966, the idea that “it could come here” was exactly that. A fantasy. Something that might be wished, but was never going to actually happen.
Example Two : People Like Us
A young, attractive, light-skinned Arab woman takes off her veil. She looks at herself in the mirror, applying make up. Her mother does her hair in a fashionable style. She looks at herself. She seems unfamiliar.
She dresses in a fashionable suit with a short skirt, ready for a night out. She looks at herself again. She’ll do. She’ll pass for white.
She makes her way down the steep, delipidated, narrow medieval streets of the Arab Town towards the checkpoint where French soldiers get to decide which of the Arabs, workers or party goers, gain entrance to the European Town, that nice level piece of developable terrain where new beachfront hotels look on to the gleaming Mediterranean.
She breathes hard. But she gets through. The soldier smiles at her cooly. She bats her mascara’d eyes, flirts back at him as he lets her through. He watches her ass appreciatively as she sashays down to a beachfront bar.
Where young, attractive people, people like us, are enjoying themselves to the sound of a sixties jukebox. She looks at them. They seem nice. And she is one of them. They look just like her. We see thought pass over her face. She makes a decision, an individual moral decision based only in part on the collective identity as one of the “others” that she took off with her anonymizing veil just moments before.
She leaves her handbag tucked under the table. She walks out of the bar.
The handbag explodes, sending showers of glass and formica shrapnel through the attractive bodies of people like us. The young Arab woman stands across the road, impassive, sparing herself no detail of the pain and shattering on innocence she has just inflicted.
The music swells.
A contemporary posting on You Tube from Islamic State or the Taliban? By no means. That is a scene from Gillo Pontecorvo’s brilliant “The Battle of Algiers” from 1966. The music is by Ennio Morricone.
It got three Oscar nominations, a BAFTA United Nations Award and a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. It is described by The Observer as “One of the most remarkable films of all time.”
I thoroughly recommend it if you haven’t already got the DVD.
Am I saying that all these institutions foster terrorism? The RSC? Glenda Jackson? The Oscar Committee? Bafta? The Observer, for God’s sake!
No. But it has always been easier to portray the complex humanity of terrorism when it was somebody else’s problem. Even when, in the 1950s and 60s…not so long ago, really…it was a bit of a problem for the French.
Example Three: I’ll Be Back
Besides, I doubt very much whether any of the British and French-born terrorists were (or are) familiar with the more esoteric reaches of Art Cinema and state subsidized theatre. But I’m willing to bet that every single one of them has seen Terminator.
Where an invulnerable robot from the future, without conscience, absolutely secure in his/its purpose, wreaks satisfying havoc on police stations and shopping malls. Where that kind of mastery of life and death can be safely enjoyed, just as it is in computer games.
Where James Bond, with his License to Kill so expertly and cooly controls everything around him, turns everything into a weapon to be used on Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
Where, in a quite brilliant contemporary take on the action hero as demi-God, Jason Bourne can safely enjoy and be horrified by his own mastery of the mechanics of mayhem, because he doesn’t remember who he is.
Now before everyone shouts at once, I’m not saying that Sean Connery or Grand Theft Auto are “to blame” for terrorism. What I am saying is that, like movies and computer games, terrorism is part of the modern cultural mainstream of who we are here and now. Culture is where we get to safely rehearse human possibilities. Those possibilities very much include conscienceless, purposeful, professional, detached,expert murder.
You can all start shouting now.
Feel like going on? Good.
Example Four : Now Do You Believe?
A lonely young man has a feeling that something is wrong with the world. He is distracted and unhappy in his work and social life. Night after night he sits at computer screen, searching. There must be a secret. The truth must be out there somewhere.
Then he meets the man who knows the secret. The world is not what it appears. The world is controlled by amoral, ruthless machines. Everyone around him is a fool and a slave…unreal…potentially an enemy, an agent.
But there is salvation. If he accepts the truth, joins the band of sexy brothers and sisters in poverty, isolation, deprivation of all the superficial pleasures of the world, then he will become special. He will be “the One.”
He resists…of course he does…till “reality”…the truth of the secret…forces itself on him as he is tortured and manipulated by the Agents who recognise how potentially dangerous he is to the superficially attractive but morally monstrous “reality” of things.
And he accepts his destiny. He finds out just how deep the rabbit hole goes. He finds the truth. he finds love. He finds mastery. He finds superhuman abilities..he learns Kung Fu. He machine guns numberless policemen in complete moral freedom and effortless, balletic, computer generated grace.
And finally, he faces the agents, more than their equal. He is killed…and rises again. The veil falls from reality. He sees the truth. he sees the world the way it is. He sees the programming running green and white round the unreality of the world he used to live in. he is a God. he can fly. He is Superman.. The sexy girl says she loves him.
He is in Paradise. Unlike everyone he left behind, he knows the truth. He sees the Matrix.
For me, the Matrix…(the first movie, the other two are pants except for that bit on the freeway)…is not only one of the finest entertainment features of the 1990s, it is an absolute template for terrorism. I think that the glamorous knowers and killers in black, them and their designer shades and their slow motion mastery of all existence, are exactly who “they think they are.” I think all the stuff about Islam is a distraction. an ideological surface just as superficial as any pseudo-structiralist cyber-babble from the Wachowski Brothers.
They are us. In our dreams. Just as the lonely kids who shoot up high schools and universities every other week in America are exactly the same as lonely kids in Korea and Croyden and Casblanca. But with access to automatic weapons.
Add in a little training, a little experience of the horrors inflicted just as surely and viscerally by bombs and drones as they are by armalites and kitchen knives…add in a little identity conflicted alienation, a little longing jealousy of white people having a good time, a little turning of that jealousy to righteous condemnation and underemployed energy and imagination and you’ve got a terrorist.
Of course you do.
Now I don’t know enough about middle eastern history and politics or cultural history in the Middle East to pretend to know whether adding some British Bombs to the hideously mixed strategy (and conflicting interests and fantasies) held by the governments and military of Russia, Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan, France, the USA, Turkey and Saudi Arabia is the right thing to do. Not really. It doesn’t intuitively seem to me to be a good idea when dealing with a Wasps’ Nest to hit it with a hammer, however well “targeted.”
But one thing I do know. They are not they. “They” are “us.” I know that because that’s what culture…movies, books and computer games…all tell me, no matter what politics says.
Why don’t we try starting from there?