Fintan O’Toole: There is a way to beat terror seen in Nice

The line between an open, democratic and civilised society and its nihilistic opponents is defined by terror and pity

It has always been like this. Human beings have always known that what happened on the Promenade des Anglais on Thursday night can happen to any of us at any time. We are vulnerable creatures and unlike other species we are most vulnerable to our own kind. Every one of us – children on tricycles, old people in wheelchairs, people mourning their dead or people celebrating a holiday – is somebody’s legitimate target.

We create laws and limits but we know that, really, there are no limits. There is only luck – some of us are lucky enough to live in times or places where there are no warring tribes, no marauding armies, no exterminationist ideologies, no messianic cults, no megalomaniacal emperors, no young men convinced that they can become immortal by preying like vampires on other people’s mortality.

Most parts of western Europe – and Ireland was not one of them – had a good run of such luck in recent decades. And now that luck is running out fast. The privilege of not having to think about our own vulnerability to atrocity has been withdrawn. The Nice attack is not a bolt from the blue; it is part of a new western European normality. In the last four years, there have been 12 such terror attacks in Europe, seven of them in France alone.

There will be more. We know this because there is a significant group of people for whom the Nice atrocity is a source, not of horror and disgust, but of quiet satisfaction, even celebration. And because, once you feel that way, killing lots of innocent people is appallingly easy – easy to think about and easy to do.

But this new normality is also a very old normality. Fear is as much a part of the human condition as joy or desire or creativity. And all we can do at times such as this is to try to think about what we might have learned from history about how best to live with it and how not to be brutalised by it.

Crucial question

More than 300 years before the birth of Christ, the Greek philosopher Aristotle asked a crucial question: what emotions are stirred up in us when we witness tragedy? He was thinking about tragedy in the formal sense, the extraordinary theatrical performances of suffering and death that all citizens gathered to witness in the Greek city states. But his answer resonates much more broadly through the ages. He said that the emotions unleashed by the witnessing of tragedy are terror and pity. As we watch our own kind of 21st-century spectacle, the all-too-real online mobile phone footage of a hurtling truck ploughing into a field of human bodies, we have to try to give both of these emotions their due at the same time. We have to hold both terror and pity in our heads. For what we have learned from history is that terror without pity destroys us.

The line between an open, democratic and civilised society and its nihilistic opponents is defined by terror and pity. The nihilists have only terror; the rest of us have pity too. To do what they do, these men have to kill off pity – the first death they inflict is on the compassion inside themselves. We know from our recent history in Ireland that it is shockingly easy for quite normal people, young men who are not psychopathic, to do this – a lethal injection of sectarian hatred, toxic victimhood and belief in a grand goal does the trick with remarkable efficiency. And to make yourself pitiless is to make yourself powerful. You can focus with relentless concentration on the other tragic emotion. You can become a pure generator of terror.

Islamic State and its wannabe acolytes have taken this power of concentration to very high levels. They have taught themselves to avoid all distractions, all irrelevant details such as age or gender or innocence – all who are not wholly with them are fair game for anything and everything: murder, rape, enslavement, torture, annihilation. This is completely logical. Terror works best when it is total. To place limits of any kind – whether common decency or the warrior’s honour – is to adulterate its effects.

But to achieve its purpose, to become total, terror must breed terror. In spite of its fantasies of a global caliphate, Islamic State can’t actually kill or enslave all of us infidels. What it can hope to do is to terrorise all of us and provoke us into counter-terror. Like all fascistic movements, and like all of history’s tyrants, it believes that in the end, when you strip away all the flim-flam of civilisation, there is only terror. The rest is nonsense and weakness – and the weak deserve to be killed or enslaved. The killers want to force us to choose – do we show the weakness that justifies enslavement or do we acknowledge that they are right and that terror must be answered with terror?

We, on the other hand, are distracted. We do feel terrified, of course. That sickening, numbing sensation of having our moral boundaries violated and our daily expectations shattered grips us hard – and all the harder because we know that what happened on the Promenade des Anglais can and happen anywhere at any time. We are right to be afraid and right to look to our states for as much protection as they can give us.

But we don’t just feel terror – we feel pity. Terror stops our hearts but our hearts also go out to people we did not know before they were murdered or maimed, to the children and women and men whose names and faces are slowly bleeding out onto the news websites. Even before they had, for most of us, names or faces, we wept for them because they were human beings and they had beautiful, complex brains and crazy dreams and silly laughs. We knew them because, in all important respects, we are them. Just as, for the killers, terror makes their age, religion, gender and social status into irrelevant details, pity does the same thing for the rest of us.

The hard thing about this pity is that it doesn’t stop with the immediate victims. The immense sorrow we feel at the deaths of people we did not know tells us that pity travels long emotional distances. We are civilised people because we can extend it from the immediate victims of this massacre to many other people: to the victims of official and unofficial terrorism everywhere, to the ordinary Muslims among who will be spat at and called names, turned from citizens to suspects. Pity complicates things.

And we know from history that it is well that it does. Terror on its own brings out the worst in us. It freezes not just our hearts but our brains: think of how the atrocities of 9/11 opened the way to such calamitous follies. The killers want that. They crave the vindication of knowing that terror, when it comes down to it, is the only truth. If we are to see them off – in time and after great suffering – it will be because we hold to a different, hard-won, ancient truth: that compassion is as boundless as fear.