Raoul Dufy’s painting of the Promenade des Anglais has made the rounds on Twitter since the Bastille Day attack. I have always loved the combination of elegance and joie de vivre expressed in the picture. My children once gave me a reproduction for my birthday to remind me of happy times in the south of France, and it hangs in our bathroom. Will I ever be able to look at the painting in the same way after what happened on July 14, when a mentally deranged young man drove a lorry into a crowd of people watching the fireworks, killing more than 80 people, including children and injuring many more? Are we watching a disappearing world, just as we did before World War I?
The last few weeks have witnessed a spate of violent events that would have seemed unthinkable only a few years ago: the murder of Jo Cox, the British MP, by a mentally unstable man who was heard to shout “Britain first!” as he shot and stabbed her; the rise of hate crimes against Europeans and ethnic minorities since the vote to leave the European Union—something I never expected to happen in Britain; the attacks on a gay club in Orlando by a security guard; the killings of African Americans and police in Dallas and Louisiana; the attacks on tourists by an Afghan refugee wielding an axe in Würzburg, Germany; and, of course, the tragedy in Nice. All this is happening against the backdrop of wars in the Middle East and Africa, the attempted coup in Turkey and associated violence, and the increase in people fleeing violence and extreme deprivation. Is there a connection between all these events? Are we hurtling towards a world where safety can no longer be taken for granted?
These different events involve a disparate cast of characters, who seem to be arbitrarily defined as mad individuals, criminals or terrorists. The Afghan in Germany and the Tunisian citizen with French residence responsible for the Nice attack were categorized as terrorists because they possessed Islamist literature or had browsed Islamist websites or had grown a beard, even though neither seems to have had concrete links with ISIS. Omar Mateen, who carried out the attacks in Orlando, had pledged allegiance to ISIS shortly before the attacks, although it subsequently appeared that his actions had more to do with conflicted sexuality than with political beliefs. Jo Cox’s murderer, on the other hand, is characterized as mentally unstable rather than a “terrorist” even though he shouted, “Britain first!” Yet what these events have in common is probably more salient than their differences.
First of all, this spate of violence is a consequence of the weakening of social inhibition against the use of violence. And this has something to do with political language. Whether we are talking about Trump, the Brexit campaigners, or ISIS, it seems to have become acceptable to incite hatred against the other, to dispense with truth and expertise, or to ridicule “political correctness.” The new British foreign secretary, for example, has referred to Africans as “picaninnies” and claimed that President Obama’s support for British membership in the EU can be explained by the fact that he is half-Kenyan and therefore has an innate dislike of the British. He also compared the EU to Hitler. Similar examples can be found in Trump’s utterances. A few years ago we in Britain debated whether Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party, should be allowed to appear on television shows because of his extreme views; during the Brexit campaign he was on the news nearly every night.
The husband of Jo Cox told the BBC that his wife had been worried about the tone in the EU debate before her death,
I think she was very worried that the language was coarsening, that people were being driven to take more extreme positions, that people didn’t work with each other as individuals and on issues; it was all much too tribal and unthinking. And she was particularly worried—we talked about this regularly—particularly worried about the direction of, not just in the UK but globally, the direction of politics at the moment, particularly around creating division and playing on people’s worst fears rather than their best instincts.
Secondly, political language is compounded by the spread of social media. There is no longer any editorial control. Indeed, founders of social-media platforms—Facebook, Twitter, and so on—are often extreme libertarians who regard editorial control as an interference in free speech. Of course, this does not mean that information is not controlled. Rather, it is managed for commercial rather than editorial purposes so that the algorithms used by social-media companies to determine the information we receive are designed to respond to our already expressed interests and assumptions; the algorithms are based on our past preferences and in this way, our own views, prejudices, likes, and dislikes are reinforced. Those who favor the language of fear and division are confirmed in their choices by their communications on social media. Social media also allow anyone to create their own online persona, and this becomes a sort of reality; the Orlando mass killer checked Facebook for news of what he was doing as he did it. A few days before the Nice attack, Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel posted selfies on Facebook of himself inside the truck he eventually used to mow down people on the Promenade des Anglais.
Thirdly, the security responses often play into the political language. The designation “terrorist” is linked to the language of war, thereby underpinning division and polarization. French President François Hollande says his country is in a war with terrorism, in the same way that successive American presidents have done. In the case of France, the security services have come under attack for their inadequacies in preventing both the earlier attacks in Paris as well as the events in Nice; the prime minister was booed at a memorial event in Nice. An all-party parliamentary commission has criticized the fragmentation of the security services and the way they are still steeped in a Cold War mentality. During the tenure of Nicholas Sarkozy, there were efforts to reform the security services, but this involved a substantial reduction in locally based police and gendarmerie and the merging of two of the most significant intelligence services, which had the further consequence of reinforcing the war- and technology-based notion of intelligence. Yet these kinds of attacks can only be detected and prevented through knowledge at local community levels and through measures designed to strengthen social cohesion and uphold taboos on violence, discrimination, and exclusion. The notion of public security linked to norms is increasingly squeezed at a moment when it is required more than ever.
Finally, the loss of inhibition also has to do with actual circumstances—the anger and alienation that is the consequence of the loss of both economic and personal status. Many of the perpetrators are the victims of three decades of deindustrialization, worsening inequality, and forced migration. And this experience is typically bound up with their sense of masculinity—their ability to support a family, for example, or to command respect. This applies as much to Britain and America, where industrial workers have been forced to take low-paying jobs, as it does to France, where the same trends have led to high unemployment, especially among young people, and the horrendous circumstances of the banlieues. It is perhaps significant that in the German case, the perpetrator was a victim of forced migration rather than the domestic economic context.
Is it possible to put the genie back in the bottle? Will we be able to enjoy the Promenade des Anglais again? It is much easier to weaken inhibitions than to restore them. Once violence becomes an everyday occurrence, the resort to violence by those who are angry, crazy, or even rational increasingly appears as a viable option. What matters is the tenor of the public discourse, We need politicians and public leaders who are decent and responsible, but that is what, for the most part, we lack. It took violence on an unimaginable scale for the loss of inhibitions that took place in Europe during the 1930s to be reversed. Surely, we can do better than that.