I WENT for a run just now and thought about France. I thought about the country I have visited many times, more than any other, even though I still don’t speak the language. And I thought about France in shock after the massacre of innocent people in Nice.
I thought too of the woman I saw on the BBC news, interviewed the night after the latest appalling incident to hit France. She and her husband had been separated in the middle of the chaos and carnage, but found each other again later.
The husband gave a calm account of what had happened, while his wife clung wordlessly and tearfully to his arm. Shock takes people in different ways. He wanted to talk, to lay out the details; she was too appalled for words.
It made me wonder about what we see on the TV news. Was it right for the camera to linger on that poor woman’s face? She was clearly distraught and filming her might be considered an intrusion. Yet if terrible things happen in the world, as sadly they do, then we shouldn’t hide from them, should we?
It’s tempting to hide. Sometimes all you want to do is hide. But this is our world, our mess. So if we hide we are not seeing or dealing with anything.
As I ran I thought, “Why France?” The answer to that probably lies in a combination of western secular liberalism and military action in Syria and Iraq. France has been the standard bearer for the rights of the western secular state to conduct itself away from religion, and a defender of human rights, free speech and democracy – all things hated by the rabidly intolerant likes of Isis.
As the sweat bubbled my brow, I thought too about what, if anything, the answer to all this might be. After my blog on Friday, a friendly critic lobbed in the observation that western countries were reaping what they had sown and that, to paraphrase the US philosopher and thinker Noam Chomsky: “The best way to prevent terrorism is to stop participating in it.”
I know a little about Chomsky, so went to find out a little more, reading a piece he had written and watching a speech online. His thoughts are too numerous and too complicated to include in detail in a post-run blog from a man on a ledge. But a big part of his thesis is that we don’t deal with the problems that cause terrorism, just send in the bombers – and make the problem worse, and increase the likelihood of further terrorism.
This is probably true. The pattern was set after 9/11 and the main motivator was revenge, rather than thinking what that revenge might lead to. France’s official reaction to the latest of too many horrors has been in that mould too, promising to extend airstrikes in Iraq and Syria.
Whether or not this is right in the long term, it is easy to see why such a response happens. The only other immediate alternative is to do nothing, or at least nothing visible to the shocked people of France. Whatever happens, the likes of Marine Le Pen, leader of the Far Right Front National, step into the hostile vacuum and spread their poison. Such tragedies usually “play well” for the far right, seemingly giving legitimacy to their intolerance.
So something is done, even if it turns out to be the wrong something. More of the same. But do we really expect France to react any differently; and would we react any differently? There are no easy answers and that’s the problem.
Mostly, though, I thought about all those people, men, women and children who had set out to enjoy the fireworks on Bastille Day. In particular, I thought of Fatima Charrihi, aged 60, a Moroccan living in France. According to reports, Fatima, a mother of seven, may have been the first victim of the lorry driven by the French-Tunisian Mohamed Lahouriej-Bouhlel. She wore the veil and, according to one of her children, practised “a true Islam – not the ‘Islam’ of the terrorists.”
I am going back to France in ten days or so, for a short break to visit my brother who lives there most of the time, travelling with my mother and other brother. A lifetime ago we drove round France in a Mini-van, parents in the front, the three of us boys in the back, plus tent, sleeping bags and boxes of cornflakes. This time we are flying.
We took our three on family holidays to France, in a bigger car and with the tents already put up when we arrived.
We should all visit France more often right now.