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.