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
7 thoughts on “CIVVY STREET”
It is, of course, only 20th century warfare onwards which has so involved the civilian populations – prior to that, battles were mostly fought out in remote locations between ‘professional’ soldiers from both sides, usually until one side was eliminated or ran away. My own father spent a couple of years chasing Rommel up and down the North African desert, most of the time far away from any civilians or even good-looking camels, so collateral damage was just a dented sand-dune.
But far from being just collateral damage, civilians in modern democracies have become key players in the strategy of the combatants – let’s face it, that worked for the IRA, leading to the current ‘peace’ and the ultimate unification of Ireland in the future: they won, getting exactly what they wanted by terrorising the people in a democracy so much that its leaders had to do a deal, any deal, to stop the bombs.
One also wonders whether the authorities have yet considered how the proposed advent of ‘driverless cars’ may then be used by such terrorist organisations, presenting them with the ability to stage truly massive explosions without the human weight-limitations or wasting one of their committed ‘soldiers’ as a suicide-bomber. You just stroke-up your Auto-Uber app, load up the half-ton of explosives, key in the target postcode, press ‘Go’, and then head off to the local mosque for another one of your 5-a-day – simples. And that will get very messy – thanks a lot, Google.
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Yes, good point re the driverless cars. They may as well market them at the discerning Jihadist; it’s the only way they’ll ever sell the bloody things.
I’d take issue with your first sentence Mudplugger. While pitched battles may have been fought in isolated fields, troops used to march through villags and cities, pillage and rape on the way to those fields. Citizens have always been collateral damage.
Your point on Ireland is well taken. Ultimately, we recognised the Irish had a right to self-determination. It should not have taken bombs to make us realise this. Evetything there that was a problem was rooted in history.
And maybe the same lesson should be taken with regard to ISIS. I have no idea why anyone would want to live under their rule. But if we leave them alone to their territory, who is to say they would not be dealt with by their own populations? Much of what befalls us today is a legacy of the past. I am in NO way sympathising or justifying their actions. Bombing civilians is wrong. But we don’t do enough to stop our own governments taking the actions in our names that have come back to bite us. I give you Obama’s drone warfare as evidence for that. Yemeni insurgents will be the new beast on the block in five years time.
In the Telegraph yesterday, John McTernan wrote that we should have bombed Assad, and we would likely not be in the pickle we are now.
Really? That worked so well with Gaddafi. And Iraq (where ISIS have territory) and Afghanistan, where the Taliban is resurgent – but at least they have a World 20/20 cricket squad. We say we want the rule of law, until it’s other peoples’ laws we don’t like, and if it’s logistically possible and they are weaker than us, in we go.
I accept I could be totally wrong and these wankers do really want to destroy our way of life just because they think they can. But we’ll never know, because we keep failing to recognise other people don’t want to be the same as us.
I suspect that much of the Western fear of ISIS/Jihadis etc. is that Western governments see it through the same prism with which they viewed Communism in the last century. Although Communists were allowed to rule their own nation-states in their own way, the over-riding fear was of sleeper-cells implanted in Western nations, whether overt political units or covert ones disguised as CND, Greenham Common, Greenpeace etc., all awaiting instructions from the supreme soviet to rise up and take control.
The same fear applies to fundamentalist Islam – every Western nation has varying degrees of Muslim immigration, mostly living quite peacefully and productively alongside the natives, but one could view the minority Jihadis amongst them as similar sleeper-cells, just like the ones recently awoken in Belgium. Islam is not just a religion, it’s a whole-life ideology, just like Communism, which can inspire people to do outrageous things in its pursuit – the pursuit of a Caliphate, initially in the Middle East but then internationally (a founding objective of Islam anyway), is probably the driver behind the West’s attempts to stop it getting off the ground by whatever means, fair or foul.
That and on-going access to the oil, of course.
It begins to hit home when you can put faces and names to the numbers, as with the poor woman who leaves her young twins and husband behind, her body shredded with blast injuries and nails. We will see more and more of this – and the spiral is already beginning. Attacks will continue, and then at some stage some point some right wing nationalist repayment in kind, and then…and then sectarian battle will be on. That is not me recommendation; it is my considered opinion of what is going to happen. Whilst I am not a big proponent of Marxist style inevitability in the direction of travel, I am damned if I can see any other outcome. Europe will become a sectarian battleground. Apocalyptic? Yes. But history is full of such apocalypses, as my namesake witnessed, 1500 years ago. He watched his culture and civilisation being annihilated as its leaders displayed feckless incompetence, lack of judgment and cowardice. Plus ca change…
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Harold Wilson once observed that, to the man without a job, the unemployment rate is 100% – same is true of terrorism casualties. Once you start to personalise them with human facts and intimate back-stories, they cease to be mere statistics and you can start to understand the real impact on so many lives.
There’s no doubt that your apocalyptic vision is one of the out-turn options, but that would first require that the attacked population became enraged and engaged enough to take up arms and resist the onslaught – I’m not convinced, in the present climate, that any such strength of resistence could be anticipated. Once you take out the Guardian-readers, the X-Factor and Strictly obsessives, then the impartials, then the comfortables, then the inertia, you’re left with just the Millwall fans and a handful of crusty colonels, hardly the stuff to worry the dedicated Jihadists unduly.
When the Romans invaded, the native Brits clearly figured that resistence was futile: most of them saw the way the wind was blowing and just carried on farming, whilst some of them actively bought into the full Roman lifestyle – have we changed from that ? Maybe we’ll just start praying five times a day, starving ourselves for a month every year and practice rocking in rhythm as we learn strange verses – as long as they keep the bread flowing and circuses running, we’d probably settle for that.
It’s maybe the unexpected and unpredictability of the current attacks. In WWII the populace was expecting it. I live on an (smallish) island in the Caribbean and we get approaching 500 murders a year yet we are worried about terrorism. Somehow the random 1 here 2 somewhere else is not as scary as the very infrequent terror attack. Don’t some 2000 people get killed on UK roads every year? I know this is rather different, but some drastic intervention that would cost less than bombing ISIS strongholds would save more lives.
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