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26 November 2015

Reflecting on Paris, violent anthems – and living normal lives amid the bullets and bombs

If you believe some reports, normal life will soon be impossible in Paris, London and other European cities. Spare a thought for Nigerians, Iraqis, Lebanese, Syrians, Yemenis, Pakistanis, Afghans and numerous others who live daily with the threat of bombings and shootings.

By Peter Wilby

In the wake of mass murder, comparisons may seem otiose and probably also distasteful. But the atrocities in Paris will, I suspect, disturb most Europeans more than the 9/11 atrocities in the US, even though the casualties were many fewer. It is not just that Paris is closer than New York and Washington, DC. The 2001 attacks were on the symbols of US global capitalism and military hegemony. The victims were mostly people working in them. This did not in any way excuse the gang of criminals who carried out the attacks. But it was possible, at least, to comprehend what may have been going through their twisted minds and the minds of those who sponsored and assisted them.

The Paris attacks were different. France, to be sure, is a nuclear-armed capitalist state willing to flex its military muscles according to principles that are not always clear to outsiders. But this was not an attack on its political, military or financial centres. It was on people of various ethnicities and nationalities on a Friday night out, watching football, enjoying a concert, eating, drinking and chatting in restaurants and bars in a city that is famed (admittedly not always justly) for romance, enlightenment and culture. That is what makes these attacks so shocking.

The glamour of Paris no doubt looks very different to the many young French people who, for one reason or another, feel excluded from its delights. That may turn out to be a clue to the motives of some who carried out the atrocities. But then again, it may not. We are in territory almost beyond comprehension. If the aerial bombing and, at home, the draconian security measures to which governments immediately resort after such events are wrong, so are glib attempts to explain what drives men to kill indiscriminately. This is a time to think, reflect and mourn.


Everyday killings

One thing we could reflect on is that Europeans are not the only people who try to enjoy ordinary pleasures only to find them disrupted by terrorism. In September this year, 145 were killed in multiple attacks in Maiduguri and Monguno, north-eastern Nigeria. The targets included a market, a mosque and a football match. In June, 146 were killed in Kobane, Syria. In April, 148 died at a university college in Kenya. In March, 137 were killed by suicide bombers in Sana’a, Yemen. On the same day as the Paris attacks, more than 18 died in Baghdad, a city that, if you include nearby satellite towns, has suffered several hundred deaths from at least 15 separate terrorist attacks this year. The previous day, terrorists in Beirut claimed 43 lives. It would have been many more, had a 32-year-old father, out with his daughter, not sacrificed his life by throwing himself at one of two suicide bombers.

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If you believe some reports, normal life will soon be impossible in Paris, London and other European cities. Spare a thought for Nigerians, Iraqis, Lebanese, Syrians, Yemenis, Pakistanis, Afghans and numerous others who live daily with the threat of bombings and shootings. They try to lead normal lives, too.


Pianos for peace

Perhaps we should also reflect on the use of national anthems to show sympathy and solidarity with countries that suffer terrorist attacks. The trouble with national anthems is that most are embarrassingly bad.

The music for the British anthem seems to me better suited to the death march of a snail and the words are relatively bland, if you ignore the verse about crushing the Scots. If the fourth verse only were sung (“Lord make the nations see/That men should brothers be/And form one family/The wide world over”), even Jeremy Corbyn might give it full voice.

The Marseillaise, by contrast, has stirring music but its lyrics were written in 1792 as the French Revolution was threatened by invading armies. The image of fierce soldiers coming to cut throats and the call to arms so that impure blood can “abreuve nos sillons” (“water our furrows”) may seem just the ticket for someone like Nigel Farage but not for me. Instead of inviting England’s football fans – some of whom don’t need encouragement to shed impure blood – to sing it at Wembley, the FA may have been better advised to hire the man who took his piano to play John Lennon’s “Imagine” outside the Bataclan concert hall in Paris.


Lost the plot

One more thing for reflection. The Daily Mail reports: “Police are investigating a staggering 600 terrorist plots against Britain.” Much further down the story, it emerges that, according to a senior Metropolitan Police officer, they are “running about 600 separate counterterrorist investigations”. That is not the same as “600 plots”, even if one believes police figures, which probably count checking an anonymous claim that the Muslims next door look a bit threatening as “a counterterrorism investigation”. If alarm increases to hysterical levels – and particularly if it leads to the harassment of British Asians – the terrorists will win.


The Lady and the baton

Plop! On to my doormat drops the usual free copy of the monthly magazine Standpoint, which is always well ahead in warning of Muslim hordes about to overrun us. My eye is caught by Paul Johnson’s review of the second volume of Charles Moore’s Thatcher biography. Johnson – a former NS editor but long lost to the right – tries to defend the Iron Lady from charges of philistinism. What rot, cries Johnson. She lunched with the great conductor Herbert von Karajan in Austria in 1984. “She plunged in straight away with a question about how to run an orchestra . . . How do you control an orchestra – by force of will or persuasion? Is a conductor necessary?”

One is reminded of the great cellist who gave young people a masterclass on the techniques and pleasures of playing the instrument. When he invited questions, a hand shot up: “How much did you pay for your cello?” 

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This article appears in the 18 Nov 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror