It’s been a strange and troubling week since the terrorist attack in Barcelona. Partly because of our proximity to the terrible events on Las Ramblas, and partly because having my children on holiday here meant I didn’t want to make them overly fearful in the aftermath. Of course, we discussed what had happened, but at the same time, we tried to keep some distance between them and what was happening around Plaça de Catalunya, which led to a strange sense of dislocation, almost as if the terror attack occurred in some other place rather than the city where we live.
I’m sure some people would have felt it was important to take the children to the scene in order to educate them or give them a better understanding of the complexities of our times. But for me personally, it would have felt somewhat mordant and unfair to impose the shock of the event on their incomprehension when even the grown ups were struggling to make sense of what had just happened.
It is difficult to project the chaos and carnage that took place on Las Ramblas onto the mundane and colloquial streetscape that we’ve seen and walked upon hundreds of times before. I almost feel ashamed for being at such a remove, for trying to carry on as normal even though all our leaders told us this is what we must do in order to “defeat” the attackers.
Because I have a thirteen year old child, it’s also challenging to reconcile my revulsion for the terrorists with the revelation that several of them were teenagers. These are crimes that reave the soul and yet they were perpetrated by young men who were barely out of childhood themselves. On reflection, the fact that one of the attackers was a boy of seventeen should make society pause (the average age of the five fugitives shot dead in Cambrils was twenty) to question our assumptions about who, and what, causes these atrocities.
This opinion may well provoke strong reactions but without seeking to make any excuses for the criminals responsible for the acts of terror in Barcelona (or other places), my own view is that we need a different, or at least additional, response to outrage and defiant assertions that ‘we will never let them change our way of life’. While these are proper and justifiable responses – like any reasonable person, I feel anger, revulsion and resolve – I also think we need to take a look at our society and our way of life and ask ourselves some difficult questions.
To begin with, I think we have to ask what inspires a seventeen year old youth, an immature, stupid and foolish boy, to perpetuate mass murder within a society that assumed it was nurturing him? Should we consider that there is more to providing a better place to live than simply allowing people to cross a frontier? Without question, these crimes are vile and despicable, but the indoctrination of these young men to such a violent and futile cause is also a waste of life and potential. I don’t mourn terrorists of any age as victims but I do question if there is something we could do differently instead of simply regarding this as some kind of sectarian or religious issue for which mainstream (in the eyes of some ‘non-Muslim’ society) has no responsibility at all. Conventional rhetoric lacks conviction. For how long are we going to keep saying “the terrorists cannot be allowed to change our way of life” in the midst of the pain and grief of each fresh attack? If that’s really true, then surely these terrible crimes will simply keep happening? That can’t continue to be the only outcome, surely?
As mentioned, some of the Barcelona attackers had barely reached school-leaving age, and yet they were motivated to inflict appalling acts of violence on complete strangers. When I think of myself at seventeen, trying to master shaving, defining an identity through the music I listened to, being preoccupied with girls, taking my first tentative journeys independently, I can’t make the leap of imagination required to see myself as these men saw themselves in their final few days. I cannot conceive how they achieved their certainty and sense of righteousness to be the uncompromising agents of horror.
It seems to me that you can’t fight this new form of terrorist nihilism. You can’t barricade every street, in every city and town, and you can’t track and monitor every vehicle on the roads (at least not without switching from “they will not change our way of life” to an equally fundamentalist totalitarianism). So either we carry on as we are, and accept this is going to keep happening, or we try to find better ways and means of tackling the issues that set individuals down the path to jihad. In this regard, I think we need less tough talking and more intelligence and intuition to shine a light on the path that leads to immolation. I was at the march for peace in Barcelona on 27th August. I saw and heard grief and anger. But I also encountered peace, solidarity and a rejection of hateful rhetoric and religious intolerance. Maybe some of those sentiments could provide different communities with the means to a better understanding of each other.
I remember reading an article in ‘Rolling Stone’ after the Brussels Airport suicide bombing. The journalist interviewed a community liaison officer from Molenbeek, the district where the attackers grew up and lived. The social worker explained that the young Muslim men who had been radicalised had grown up within Belgian society but had been systematically excluded from it. They had no job prospects, no status, no sense of belonging. They were zero class citizens. Unemployment, he finished, ruefully, is a wonderful recruiting sergeant for jihad.
Now, of course, it does not follow that unemployment leads to terrorism. But a life devoid of meaning, purpose and expectation is acutely vulnerable to deflection, whether that be into alcoholism, drug addiction, petty crime or, indeed, religious fundamentalism. Combine a life of very limited prospects with racism and social exclusion and I think one conceivably creates conditions where the fantasy of extremism as some kind of valid alternative may prosper.
It’s true that the overwhelming majority of terrorist attacks are carried out by Islamic fundamentalists. But it is no less true that the majority of Muslims find terror crimes such as Barcelona as abhorrent as non-Muslims. And, as with London, Manchester, Paris, Nice, Berlin, Madrid, Brussels, New York and all the other places that terrorists have unleashed carnage, the roll call of victims knows no simple boundaries of race, religion, geography or politics. Thirty four nationalities were harmed in the Las Ramblas attack. The indiscriminate nature of the violence has long since passed beyond any notion of calculated retribution for attacks on Muslims. These are crimes against humanity. The terrorists are the apostates, not us.
Having said that, I feel obliged to include a caveat. It is also true that innocent Muslims have died in their hundreds of thousands in conflicts either initiated or sanctioned by nations of the G7. This has to be acknowledged when we ask why is it that hate preachers find fertile ground to germinate seeds of hatred in the minds of angry young men. Every child inadvertently blown up by US, British, Russian or NATO ordnance is as important and tragic a loss as the children killed on Las Ramblas. It seems to be dangerously naive or callous to suggest that these outcomes have no connection at all. Acknowledging that our actions, however accidental or strategically justifiable in the context of a wider conflict, provide motive and the perception of a just cause to fundamentalism is a part of this debate.
Alas, it doesn’t end there. To the exclusion of those within our societies, we could add the demonisation of migrants and refugees as vermin and cockroaches, less than human, less deserving, less valid than ourselves. When refugees arrive in our society, it isn’t charitable to make them feel a debt of gratitude as if it were some kind of weight that they and their children must bear for ever. Regardless of their circumstance, they are members of our society and we owe them dignity and respect, not marked doors. It isn’t entirely surprising that having destroyed stability in so many regions, we are resented for sealing our borders to those fleeing in search of the prosperity we promised our interventions would bestow, and portraying asylum seekers and refugees as ‘the other’.
Now, unquestionably, the mere fact of a boat of refugees capsizing in the Mediterranean doesn’t justify an individual with no connection to those victims from driving a car into a crowd of people. But I believe it contributes another thread that, along with many other threads, is eventually woven into a deceptive tapestry of violent and hateful ideology that becomes fully realised and coherent in the minds of extremists.
All of this is happening at a time when we are more uncertain and lacking in confidence in the strength of our civic society than at any time since 1945. White supremacy is a mainstream political force once again, dividing communities, blaming outsiders, seeking to protect elite interests. Neoliberalism is collapsing under its own bloated weight into neofascism. If you create an unequal society that is difficult enough for those on the inside, let alone those forbidden to participate; if you turn the vulnerable and desperate upon those in even more need than themselves, events like Barcelona become one of the responses we should anticipate.
The degree of injustice and moral inequality in the world is repugnant to liberals like myself. They aren’t in any shape or form an excuse for terrorism but inequality breeds hopelessness, hopelessness breeds despair and despair leads to anger and a sense of having nothing left to lose. That’s why I think it’s important we oppose the threats to democracy espoused by leaders who simply want to build higher walls and use bigger bombs. This merely stokes the fire of inequality and disenfranchisement that created such dangerous pressures in the first place.
I don’t claim to have a simple answer to these painfully complex issues. But if the threat we now have to guard against is something as banal as a ruined teenager behind the wheel of a car, I believe we have to consider the possibility that change may be required, not because we want give in to terrorism, but because we want to create a better, fairer world in which fewer people come to regard jihadism as the only identity that gives their life meaning or control.
I don’t think we can simply assume that this is just about one faith or one group putting their house in order. Yes, these young Muslim men committed their crimes in the name of a religion, but other influences led to them to the edge of the abyss, many of which implicate society in general. In order to stop this appalling vision gripping the minds of others who will, undoubtedly, follow them if nothing were to change, we have to break those evil threads, one by one. However difficult it may seem in the midst of our grieving, no tenim por i podem fer-ho.