At least 80 people have been killed in an attack in Nice, France. As of Friday, it appears that a single attacker rammed a truck into a crowd celebrating Bastille Day on Thursday night.
At the time of writing, world leaders have not pronounced at length and most opinion pieces have not been penned.
Yet, the script is already being acted out. The Greek chorus of social media is in the middle of the overture. Facebook has made its “safety check” feature available for people in Nice. #OpenDoorsNice has been trending on Twitter. Utility aside, these gestures are already ideological performances.
In the coming hours and days, the right will warn us of the danger of radical Islam and ISIS. The Donald Trumps of the world will fire off many a “told-you-so” into the vulnerable crowd of public opinion. Reports of ISIS-linked twitter accounts celebrating the attack have already circulated. Most leaders will stake out a superficially moderate position. Christians, atheists and good Muslims will be called on to unify against bad Muslims. This unity will probably conceal attacks on civil liberties, as it did after the Paris attacks in November last year.
Think pieces will appear. They will tell us the beauty of Nice, now forever scarred, will nonetheless recover. We will not allow terror to impact our way of life. We will defy hatred (and help local business) by bravely going out for a drink. The significance of Bastille Day will be shallowly mulled over. Never mind that the burning of the Bastille (a hated royalist prison) was labelled terrorism at the time. The French Revolution liberated France’s colonies while the sans-culottes of Paris railed against racism, calling it the “aristocracy of skin”. This will be forgotten as Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité are invoked against contemporary victims of French racism and colonialism.
All the while, the social-media chorus will mirror the play. Articles and tributes will be shared and profile pictures will be filtered through the tricolour.
Some will ask why we didn’t change our profile pictures following other recent attacks. This is a good question.
This is the fourth major attack in two months. Before Nice came Dallas, Baghdad and Orlando. These attacks were all premeditated and carried out by individuals or very small groups. But the reactions have been starkly different. Baghdad was the deadliest: over 250 died. This bombing, also claimed by ISIS, largely passed without comment. Very few profile pictures were changed, no public vigils were held and no think pieces questioned how life would ever be the same.
There is an implicit racism here. Are the lives of Iraqi Shias worth less than lives of liberal Westerners? The more honest reply justifies the selectiveness. We have come to expect that type of thing from Iraq. Never mind that 2016 bombing was ultimately a consequence of the 2003 invasion. Franz Fanon noted that fascism is the implementation of colonial governance in the home country. Similarly, the Nice attack a small taste of what the West has made a norm in places like Iraq and Syria.
But these observations lead in difficult directions: on the one hand, it might be tempting to “democratise” our public mourning. Change your profile picture following every attack; grieve for every person killed unjustly. This would be to take arms against the proverbial sea of troubles. As Shakespeare warns, “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all”.
Reacting with horror to an indiscriminate killing is human. But what adds to the tragedy is that this human reaction will be manipulated to serve anti-human political ends. While Turnbull was pledging solidarity, Abbott was warning us about the creativity of Islamic terrorism. He has denounced the ingratitude, “malice” and “prepared[ness] to kill and be killed” of migrants who have been “given succour” by our society.
At times like this, indifference is better than contrived grief. Emotional blackmail is the ally of racism. Genuine solidarity must stand apart from all of this.
This isn’t to say that emotion has no place in progressive politics. After all, the outpouring of sympathy for the 49 killed at Orlando was both real and progressive. Despite the Islamism of the killer, (whose mental state was clearly compromised) these deaths were not so easily co-opted by the right. This was largely because we recognize that our own society is shot through with homophobia. Even so, the more cloying sentimental responses to Orlando have been hard to stomach. Try sitting through Jennifer Lopez and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s tribute song, “Love Make the World Go Round”.
This brings me to the Dallas shooting. The way that the Black Lives Matter movement reacted was perfect. Rather than being blackmailed into endless public denunciations of the shooting, they called more demonstrations. They pressed home the point that Blacks are killed and injured wantonly by police every day. They refused to allow the public discourse to be transformed into one of manufactured sympathy for police. Blue lives are taken infinitely more seriously than Black lives.
While this is a clear-headed political response, it is also well acquainted with grief and anger. It is impossible to watch one of the many videos of African-Americans being murdered by police without hatred welling up.
Herein lies an answer to the depressing script that will play out over the coming days and weeks. We have to refuse to be emotionally or politically manipulated by the powers that be and their hack writers. In place of the synthetic grief and denunciation to come we should not “democratise” our grief and denunciation, lamenting and condemning every inhumanity. Instead, we have to exercise our own political and emotional selectiveness. The path to a better world will not be illuminated by vigils, but by the fire of resistance.