I remember the Admiral Duncan bombing through the media coverage: footage of fire engines and a policeman with a bloodstained shirt on the Nine O’Clock News that evening; the gouged-out front of the bar in grainy newsprint photos the next day. And I remember thinking: ‘They really hate gay people.’ It’s the kind of awkward thought you have on the cusp of adolescence: ‘they’ is hard to define, but it’s large, out there and armed; and ‘gay people’, you are beginning to sense, however scrupulously you may draw the third-person boundary in speech, includes you.
Far-right terrorist ‘manifestos’, like the one apparently published by one of the Christchurch shooters, are a kind of Rorschach test, inviting the reader to finish the job by finding meaning in the incoherent and contradictory ideas it contains. An act of mass murder is turned into a global spectacle by the use of real-time social media networks. Traditional media organisations and individuals online are drawn into repeating, arguing over and sharing the claims and images made by the perpetrator.
Adil Ahmad Dar, the 20-year-old Kashmiri suicide terrorist who killed himself along with forty Indian soldiers at Pulwama on 14 February, will be regarded as a hero and martyr by many Kashmiris of his generation, alienated, desperate and angered by the atrocities that have been rained down on them by the Indian military on the orders of successive governments (the Congress record is appalling) for many decades. Blinding young men in Kashmir with pellet guns is an Indian innovation. Had Dar acted alone, a few might even have dared call him a hero in public. Instead an oppressive silence reigns throughout Kashmir.
On 9 August, a Saudi Arabian air strike on a school bus in Yemen killed 40 children aged betweeen six and eleven, along with eleven adults, wounding a further 79. The 500-pound bomb had been supplied by the US. It might just as easily have come from the UK. Around half the Saudi air force consists of British-built planes, which have played a significant role in the war.
The IRA bomb that went off in the Grand Hotel, Brighton in the early hours of 12 October 1984 blew half the building to bits, killed five Tory high-ups, including an MP, and seriously injured 34 others. The security forces really should have sniffed it out before Margaret Thatcher and most of her Cabinet moved in. It had been set up, with a timer, several days in advance. As an assassination attempt directed against Thatcher, however, it failed, having been placed in the wrong room. ‘The cry went up: “Maggie’s safe!”’ Jonathan Aitken remembered afterwards. ‘Such was the relief that strangers shook hands, and clasped each other’s shoulders.’ (How ‘British’! No hugging or kissing!) It also failed as an act of terrorism. Terrorism is supposed to terrify. The Brighton bomb didn’t. If anything, it had the opposite effect.
What do you call the premeditated murder of 59 people by a heavily armed civilian? News media appear to have settled on the phrase ‘mass shooting’, avoiding the more incendiary term ‘terrorism’ because, we are told, there is no obvious motive behind the shooter’s actions. Masha Gessen in the New Yorker urges us not to describe this as an act of terror because, so far, ‘no evidence has emerged that the Las Vegas shooter was motivated by political beliefs.’ Scott Shane in the New York Times agreed that the ‘mass killing of innocents, even on the scale of Las Vegas, does not automatically meet the generally accepted definition of terrorism, which requires a political, ideological or religious motive.’
Brittle and blustering Theresa May reacted to Saturday night's killings in London with strong words from outside Number 10. We know they were strong, because the BBC’s anchor Jane Hill kept telling viewers so the next morning, during the rolling coverage near London Bridge. Central Office must have been heartened to see that Lynton Crosby’s election campaign attack lines are getting through undiluted into the Corporation’s news reporting. Later, on BBC1's evening bulletin, Hill's 'strong' had become 'blunt and uncompromising' from the Beeb's political editor Laura Kuenssberg.
Two weeks out from the election, and soldiers are patrolling Britain's streets. The securitisation response, with the usual bovine complicity across the media, has sidelined politics. Spooks who advised May in the Cobra meeting after Monday's atrocity in Manchester will have presented their best guess about national security, as well as what their political masters want to hear, in cranking the 'threat level' up to 'critical'. Now the election campaign is overshadowed by what is in effect a state of emergency.
On the BBC’s Today programme yesterday, some nine hours after the horror of the Manchester bombing, Nick Robinson was speaking to Chris Phillips, a counter-terrorism expert. ‘Terrorists don’t care who they kill,’ Phillips said. ‘It’s the number of bodybags that determines success.’ ‘And the publicity,’ Robinson interjected. ‘And the publicity,’ Phillips agreed. The Today programme then dutifully devoted its entire three hours of programming to coverage of the bombing (apart from a few minutes on weather and sport). This was before the perpetrator had been identified and before the security services had been able to assess whether or not the attack was an isolated incident. Coverage mostly consisted of commentators speculating on motives, along with a series of harrowing eyewitness accounts that helped to amplify the main objectives of terrorism: to create fear and to sow division.
The statistics make grim reading. In a 2013 report, Overview of Fatal Incidents Involving Cattle, the Health and Safety Executive notes in its usual lapidary prose that ‘this paper gives an overview of fatal incidents involving cattle to (a) Enable Agriculture Industry Advisory Committee members to consider the current trends in agriculture accidents involving cattle.’ There is no room for complacency. The HSE logs 74 'fatalities involving cattle' in the UK in 2000-15, compared to 53 deaths caused by Islamist terrorism in the same period.
I’ve been to Paris a lot in the last year or so. When I get offered DJ gigs in the city, I usually say yes and, if possible, stay for an extra day or three. At the time of the terrorist attacks in the 10th and 11th arrondissements a year ago I was at home in Manchester, but I know the area quite well. In 2010 I saw Trentemøller perform at the Bataclan. A journalist working for Les Inrocks, a French magazine I sometimes write for, was murdered in the theatre. A club promoter I met in 2013 lost seven friends at one of the bars.
Gilles Kepel, a specialist on 'Islam and the Arab world', wrote last year in Terreur dans l'Hexagone – a study of French jihadism – that the Charlie Hebdo killings were 'a sort of cultural 9/11'. The jihadism that we're now confronted with, he argued, is a third wave phenomenon, superseding the mujahidin in Afghanistan (the first) and emerging in the long twilight of al-Qaida (the second). The latest wave is specifically targeted at Europe, with its significant Muslim population (about 20 million in EU countries): the approach is 'horizontal', favouring networks rather than cells; disruption, fear and division are the tactics; the radical awakening of European Muslims, many already disaffected and marginal, is the immediate objective. The murders at Charlie Hebdo’s offices and the kosher store in Paris brought the third wave 'to a paroxysm', in Kepel's view, just as 9/11 brought the second 'to its pinnacle'. At the time of writing, no one has laid claim to the atrocity in Nice: more than eighty dead, fifty hospitalised ('between life and death', in President Hollande's words, earlier today).
Fifteen years ago I woke in my flat at the northern end of Manhattan, unemployed and hungover. I munched on a stale bagel while gazing out the kitchen window at the Palisades. A friend who’d recently moved out of the city called on my landline, the only line I had: ‘I got through – Lee! The towers are gone!’ I turned the radio on and heard the chaos, then ran downstairs to the bar I’d left a few hours earlier. On the way I watched a white man accost an Arab cab driver, yelling: ‘I’m gonna call the cops on you!’ The bar’s television showed the towers fall countless times over the next three hours. I took the subway as far south as it went, then walked as close to Ground Zero as I could, close enough anyway to leave footprints in the dust. This morning I woke in the Brussels commune of Saint-Gilles, not much more employed and hungover from last night’s weekly outdoor market and apéro in front of one of the city’s nineteen town halls. I had two text messages: ‘We just heard the news, are you OK?’ I knew instantly what had happened. Those two messages asking if I was all right were enough to tell me there’d been an attack in Brussels and people had died while I slept.
Up to a point, the US is to guns as the Netherlands is to bicycles. Both bits of kit are widely owned, used and even venerated in their respective lands. Their users can mobilise powerful lobbies. On Saturday on the Haarlemmerstraat I saw an irate motorist get out of his vehicle to bawl at a cyclist. He was quickly surrounded by passers-by and forced back into his car. It was a more satisfactory outcome than some disputes between gun users. But then – and here’s where the analogy begins to give out – bikes aren’t generally designed to kill people. ‘Terrorism’ and ‘tragedy’ thrive in different semantic fields. After the murders in San Bernardino last week the media were at first stumped about whether to call it ‘terror’ or just another ‘tragic’ gun massacre.
On Friday, Bamako flashed into the European media’s consciousness. In the early morning, men with automatic weapons had arrived at the Malian capital’s Radisson Blu hotel. Shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’, they killed two security guards and took 170 staff and guests hostage. It was the third attack of its kind this year. The first was at La Terrasse restaurant in Bamako on 7 March, where five people died; the second, on 7 August, was at the Hotel Byblos in central Mali. Thirteen people died.
‘Terrorism and immigration are not the same,’ an Afghan migrant in his thirties tells me. Self-evident facts need to be reiterated in a state of emergency. He’s married to a French person – no names at this point – and expecting a French passport shortly. He’s worried, like all migrants of Muslim origin, about the next step in the confrontation with Isis: migrants were regarded with suspicion long before last week’s attacks in Paris. He’s with friends, new arrivals from Kabul and Jalalabad, queuing in the drizzle outside the offices of a refugee support NGO, Terre d’Asile, in the 18th arrondissement. They have folders of documents to help them make asylum claims, but they’re confused, and so am I: procedures have changed since I last lent a hand with a claim.
At around 6.00 p.m on Thursday, 12 November, two bombs went off in a shopping district in southern Beirut. At least 43 people died and more than 200 were injured in the deadliest blast to hit the Lebanese capital since the end of the civil war in 1990. Isis claimed responsibility. No monuments in Europe were lit up with the tricolour Lebanese flag; no Facebook safety check was turned on for Beirut residents; there was no one-click feature to allow Facebook users to add a Lebanese flag filter to their profile picture. Not many Western heads of state felt obliged to offer public condolences to Lebanon, a country of 4.4 million people which has taken in more than a million Syrian refugees.
‘Nous sommes en guerre.’ Nicolas Sarkozy’s statement on Sunday morning, after meeting François Hollande to discuss the massacres in Paris, echoed his successor’s statement to the French people on Friday evening, which used the g-word four times. Modern statecraft deploys a mobile army of mixed metaphors, as when the ‘they’ who kill ‘us’ are also partly ‘us’. If it’s war abroad, does that mean that Friday’s killers count as combatants, with Geneva Convention rights, and that military action needs legal authorisation? If it’s domestic terrorism, what title does the state have to range beyond its borders, pursuing Isis on foreign sovereign territory?
Sunday: we wake under blue skies to Nicolas Sarkozy calling for ‘the whole world’ to destroy Isis and demanding a ‘new’ immigration policy, as he steps away from a meeting with Hollande. Stern words on the first day of national mourning declared by the president. Last night Paris was half a city, maybe less. In the capital where the world’s first public audience paid to see a motion picture, the art house cinemas were closed like bakeries, the foyers of the multiplexes dark behind their plate-glass entrances. Few people on the streets, fewer on the metro: twenty passengers at most in a carriage on the Ligne 4; seven in a carriage on the little line from Châtelet to Mairie des Lilas. Nine o’clock, or thereabouts. One hundred and thirty dead, a hundred more with critical injuries in hospitals around the city: Lariboisière, St Louis, La Pitié-Salpêtrière, others.
On 23 October 2002, between 40 and 50 Chechen men and women drove in a blacked-out van through the early evening central Moscow traffic, out to a suburb once home to one of the world’s largest ball-bearing factories. They pulled balaclavas over their heads, strapped belts of dynamite across their bodies, and walked briskly into the main entrance of a concrete, brutalist theatre known as Palace of Culture Number 10. The show that evening was a performance of Nord-Ost, a musical set in Stalin’s Russia. It was sold out. The terrorists came on stage during a love aria. They fired into the air. At first many in the audience thought they were part of the play. When they realised they weren’t, there were screams and a charge for the exits. But they were blocked by ‘black widows’ with explosives wired between their bodies and the doors. The men on stage ordered the audience back into their seats: if anyone moved they would be shot. By the time I arrived the next morning, as a fixer for tabloid hacks and documentary crews, the theatre was surrounded by soldiers, medics, TV cameras, cops and onlookers.
The whereabouts of Ibrahim Magag are causing concern. The 28-year-old hasn’t been seen at home since Boxing Day, and though that might ordinarily be the business of no one but his wife and kids, his absence has set off a police manhunt and exposed him to the risk of five years in jail. Magag isn’t a defendant awaiting trial or a convict due to be sentenced. His brush with the law has arisen because he is one of ten people on whom the home secretary, Theresa May, has served a notice under the Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures Act 2011. Although it is impossible to be sure what the TPIM notice said – its contents are not a matter of public record – it seems to have asserted May's belief that Magag, who was born in Somalia, was linked to the extremist organisation al-Shabaab. That belief entitled her to impose restrictions on his liberty, including a curfew, and he is a fugitive only because of his apparent breach of those restrictions. In other words, Magag stands to be criminalised because the home secretary suspects him of criminality.
The big question for virologists in recent years is why H5N1 influenza hasn’t mutated to cause a pandemic. It is as feeble today at spreading from person to person as it was in 1997, when it first drew attention to itself through a dramatic chicken-to-human outbreak in Hong Kong. H5N1 human infections are very nasty with a high mortality, But they are very hard to catch. To start growing, the virus has to get deep into the lungs. The surest way for this to happen is to be a South East Asian cockfighter. They stimulate the birds by spitting down their throats; the birds spit back.
I was in Russia when the suicide bomber blew him/herself up in the arrivals hall of Moscow Domodedovo Airport. A rush of worried calls and e-mails jammed my phone (‘I am fine, I was in the Urals when it happened’). One message stands out: ‘The fuckers wrecked our set. Our set!’ In 2008 I produced a television show at the airport for Russian TV. For a year I slept at the airport, I woke at the airport. I know where the smoke alarms are dummies and you can have a crafty fag; when the best light floods through the glass walls to get the best shots; how to cut a deal with the customs guys so they go and buy you duty free whisky. I know which flights bring in which types of passenger. The show was called Hello Goodbye, a remake of a Dutch format. The presenter would walk around the airport and talk to people leaving or meeting each other: emotional families reunited after a generation, lovers parting for ever, lads off for a dirty weekend. It was a microcosm of the new Russia, all the country’s stories under one high-domed roof.
The Australian (Labor) government has just published a white paper (‘Securing Australia – Protecting Our Community') which assures its readers that the terrorist threat to Australia is stronger than ever. External threats remain, of course, but are now made much worse by the dangers of homegrown terrorism, a result of the spread of jihadist propaganda among Australia’s Muslim population. The government is proposing to increase significantly the powers of the federal police – including the right to search the property of suspected ‘terrorists’ without a warrant – and to introduce further (and severe) visa tests on people coming to Australia from 10 unnamed countries. Sound familiar? It should, because the prime minister, Kevin Rudd, has acknowledged that in preparing the legislation the Australians consulted the British government. What lies behind all this?