It happened less than a week ago, but the truck massacre in Nice is already fading into the background: so much stuff keeps on happening – wars and coups and the sheer constant idiocy of the elections on both sides of the Atlantic – that no horror can remain horrifying for long. Almost without anyone noticing, it's gone from being a vicious tear in the fabric of life into just another miserable part of that fabric.
We live in a world where 84 people can die while watching the fireworks on Bastille Day; that's just how it is now. The French government's response melds seamlessly into that awful, omnipresent how-it-is-now-ness. Hours after the attack, President Hollande announced that France would be stepping up its military interventions in Iraq and Syria. These things have a logic all of their own – it makes perfect sense, of course it does; it's what's done. The fact that doing this isn't just fundamentally wrong, but that it won't even help, is basically immaterial. Could blowing things up in the Middle East ever possibly stop the next French Tunisian from driving a truck at full speed into a crowded street? Could it ever achieve anything except ensuring that, sooner or later, this will happen again? So why do it?The real reason is simple: because the worst possible thing always happens, and what we still sometimes refer to as life is just a nauseating and senseless spiral into extinction. The stated reason is because this was an Isis attack, and we're at war with Isis. Never mind that the killer, Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, had no known connections to the group, made no declaration of allegiance, had never visited Iraq or Syria, never regularly went to mosque and had no apparent interest in the actual tenets or practice of Islam. Or the fact that the real common factor in so many of these atrocities – the killings in Orlando, or in Utøya, or so many others all around the world – is that the perpetrators are men who are angry at women, who are violent towards their partners, or who feel entitled to fuck whoever they want and become furious when their desires are occasionally frustrated. Or that one-third of the people he murdered were themselves Muslims. It doesn't matter; our story has been set. This was an Isis attack, and we're at war with Isis.
But what even is Isis? Several hundred parched acres in the flat interior of Iraq and Syria, yes; a centralised network of violent perverts, yes. But it's also become a very convenient way to describe something else. It's become a tautology – Isis is the thing that causes whatever attacks we attribute to Isis. There are no other unifying characteristics. Isis is our name for whatever it is that drives young men into a deadly nihilism; Isis is the invisible and occulted thing that makes people – often from an Islamic background, but by no means always – kill. Isis lives just under the skin of ordinary objects, everywhere and nowhere at once. Say its name three times and it'll burst out of its hiding-place, fangs foaming and murderous. It's a zombie-bite, something you might not have even noticed until it turns you into a member of its vast and shuffling army. It's the drudgery, the boredom, the humiliation – whatever it is that makes death preferable to life. It's our name for the wrongness of the world.And the world is deeply wrong. Massacres like the one in Nice prompt governments to go about committing massacres of their own; wars in foreign countries create deadly violence in the metropole. It's a mess, eternally fractured, divided against itself at every possible juncture, and the only time it ever reaches any kind of synthetic unity is at the point of suffering. That's when it forms a total system, a vast engine made of trucks and missiles bearing down on the irrelevant individual with a blank, crushing uniformity. When state violence and individual terror so effortlessly feed into each other, it doesn't really make much sense to try to make a distinction. I'm not saying that Western intervention is just as bad as Isis, or that it's hypocritical for people in the West to criticise Isis when our own governments do bad things, too. Far worse. I'm saying that they're exactly the same thing.
History, Marx said, progresses by its bad side. But Marx, still full of his Hegelian optimism, lived in a world where history had its good side, too. Now, the procedure is different, a dialectic of suffocating evil. The worst always happens, but when it does it's always in response to itself. Whatever it is that we've decided to call Isis is an expression of something wrong in the world, and to fight it we go about making things worse. Every turn in the cycle justifies itself by the one that came before, but it's a single movement, one vast lurch towards collapse.And once you notice the pattern, you start seeing it everywhere. Take the failed coup in Turkey: Erdoğan's government was increasingly despotic, corrupt and unhinged, and so a military cabal tried to overthrow it in the name of a constitutional democratic secularism that has, at the same time, never been averse to a little mild genocide. Some 145 civilians were killed in the attempt, there was horrifying footage of attack helicopters firing on crowds and guns cracking as protesters crossed the Bosporus, and the response from Erdoğan has been more repression, more purges, more restrictions on the press and a faster clearing-out of all the last trappings of liberal democracy.For the people who really suffer at the hands of the Turkish state – Kurdish people or religious minorities – this couldn't have seemed a battle between opposing sides, but two elements of their oppression – the state and the military – each giving the other a leg up. In Britain, the right-wing enforces the impression that every indignity in life is caused by migration, and when people start believing it our pragmatic liberals decide that this is such a reasonable concern that the only way to defeat the right is to start pandering to racism. In America, voters are so terrified of the possibility of a nuclear-armed Donald Trump that they'll cheerfully embrace a nuclear-powered Hillary Clinton. No hope, no respite. The bad side is always fighting itself, and it always wins.
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