It’s a ghastly side-effect of warfare that those who haven’t signed up for either side always end up in the firing line. Whether their turf is contested by professional national armies, amateur guerrillas or nihilistic terrorists, the civilian population is invariably caught in crossfire while attempting to go about their daily business. To the left is a remarkable photograph taken on a London street in 1944: two women step off a bus onto the pavement while the cloud from a V-1 rocket that exploded a second before the photographer clicked the camera shutter can be seen rising in the background. It’s the juxtaposition of the ordinary with the extraordinary in the image that speaks volumes as to the tenacity of the human spirit when necessary routine is confronted by a potentially fatal threat.
By 1944, of course, London’s population had already survived the devastation of the Blitz, rendering the introduction of the flying bomb – Hitler’s last petulant throw of the dice towards a country he couldn’t conquer – the latest in a long line of man-made meteors falling from the sky that were faced with weary resignation. The people wouldn’t have been desensitised to the horrors inflicted by the V-1 due to having endured half-a-decade of bombardment on the home front, but that experience made a new spin on the art of mass murder perhaps less shocking in 1944 than it would have been in 1940. Such experience counts for a lot when the enemy devotes so much time and energy to devising more effective ways to kill you.
Life goes on in Israel and Iraq just as it went on in London when V-1s were being launched from the French coastline and as it went on in Ulster at the height of the Troubles; when the possibility of carnage is an ever-present, acceptance of the fact is one way of being able to deal with it, it would seem. Otherwise, every metropolitan area with the permanent likelihood of premeditated bloodshed hanging over it would simply consist of streets filled with people running up and down screaming all day long.
Ever since the Madrid Bombings of March 2004, when 191 lost their lives in ten separate bomb blasts on the rail line, Europe has had to contend with the threat of large-scale slaughter that puts past masters such as ETA, the Red Brigades and the IRA firmly in the shade. What happened in Madrid twelve years ago was the first mega-massacre of modern times on European soil and the first in which the Allied Invasion of Iraq was held up by the perpetrators as justification; a year later, Islamic terrorism hit London when 52 died in the 7/7 attacks. After 148 innocent lives were lost in the two Paris attacks that bookended a gruesome twelve months for the French capital last year, it seemed to be only a matter of time before the next one, and it came yesterday in Brussels, with a death toll so far of 34.
These major incidents have been interspersed with smaller acts of terrorism, often carried out by a lone wolf and lacking the meticulous planning of a Madrid or Paris attack, buts ones that have nevertheless still claimed lives. The kind of hideous event that occurred in the Belgian capital yesterday remains mercifully rare. One year and four months separated Madrid and 7/7; almost a full decade separated 7/7 from the Charlie Hebdo attacks; there was a gap of eleven months before the second, even more devastating, assault on Paris last November; and, rather worryingly, just four months between that and Brussels.
Whereas previous terrorist movements used political ideology or nationalism to justify the murder of civilians, the faith element of Al Qaeda or ISIS is a throwback to the state-sponsored slaughter that flourished across Europe several centuries ago. A continent largely governed by contemporary secular values was unprepared for the resurgence of religion as a convenient excuse, but the way in which Radical Islam has taken grip of young men of Middle Eastern descent across Europe can arguably be viewed as a failure on the part of authorities to provide its young with that most necessary of human goals – hope.
An adolescent male raised in a poverty ghetto is susceptible to the allure of fast cash that drug-dealing and other forms of petty crime can bring, especially in the kind of desperate environment the financial crash of 2008 gave birth to. When he inevitably ends up behind bars, this is when religion can be sold as salvation. Someone who feels powerless will grab at anything that offers the illusion of power, and the alienation from their fellow man that social deprivation can engender is a dangerous weapon in the hands of recruiters for the cause. The public cease to be viewed as merely annoying, uncaring idiots and are transformed into vermin that can be wiped out without conscience.
Dehumanisation is a necessary aspect of warfare that persuades the soldier he has the right to kill his enemy and is never plagued by doubt. Anyone not signed-up to the ISIS agenda is therefore regarded as a viable target and can be exterminated without the perpetrator being kept awake at night by the lives of strangers he has ended – if he lives to survey the carnage he has created, of course.
The suicide bomber element of Radical Islam is an innovation in the urban war-zone, with the only comparable precedent being the Kamikaze pilots of World War II, young Japanese men indoctrinated with the fanatical belief that dying for their Emperor was a worthy act of heroism; substitute Hirohito with Allah and the indoctrination is identical. The key difference is that the inheritors of the Kamikaze mantle aren’t conducting their suicide missions out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, but on the street, one indistinguishable from the street you’ve set foot on in the last 24 hours.
Whether one is the ‘collateral damage’ of Obama’s insidious indiscriminate drones or a European commuter boarding public transport in order to simply get from A to B, Civvy Street is today’s Agincourt, Waterloo or Verdun – a battlefield for the non-conscripted. We’re all in the army now.
© The Editor