THERE are two Word files for this blog on my laptop. The second one opens every day on the Monday in November after the dreadful assaults in Paris. Now with gloomy circularity, we are back there again, only this time in Brussels.
At the weekend today presenter John Humphrys wrote an appreciation of the great broadcaster Cliff Michelmore, a man who helped shape modern broadcasting. He recalled being a young ITV reporter at the Aberfan disaster in 1966 and rushing about the place, attempting to capture what had happened when a waste tip flattened a primary school, burying the children.
“I spent much of that awful day on the phone in the village pub trying to convey the horror of it over the landlord’s phone. Trying and failing,” Humprhys said.
When Michelmore went live on the BBC, he opened his report by saying: “I don’t know how to begin. Never in my life have I seen anything like this. I hope I never see anything like it again.”
Simple and sombre – and to the point.
The Aberfan disaster is the first such tragedy I recall seeing on the television; the first but certainly not the last. Then terrorism took over, with the IRA attacks, 911 and the London bombings; and Paris and everything horrific in between. Horrors carried out now in the name of a religion that wants nothing to do with such barbarity, as has been the case before, thanks to a twisted agenda that makes no sense to most people.
Michelmore’s words speak to us across the decades in a way, capturing the sense of incomprehension, except that tragically we keep seeing things like this, again and again. Something truly dreadful happens, usually killing or injuring ordinary people going about their ordinary lives. Eventually life goes back to normal, or as near to normal as possible, the skin of everyday life forms again. And then it happens once more.
Brussels had been braced for an attack, and when it came it was as cruel and dreadful as could have been imagined. Four months after the deadly Paris attacks, we are there again, with bloody mayhem in a different European capital after an attack thought to have been carried out by the Islamic State group.
The bomb attacks yesterday morning were co-ordinated to cause maximum harm and confusion. Explosions went off at the city’s Zaventem Airport and Maelbeek metro station – and came four days after the arrest in Brussels of Salah Abdeslam in connection with the Paris shootings. Whether the attacks were planned as revenge for that arrest remains to be determined, although it would hardly be surprising if that were the case.
The way we learn about such terrible events has changed beyond recognition since Aberfan. Back then disasters happened in real time, and the news took its time. Now disasters happen and we know the first details within minutes, while the horror is unfolding.
This has happened for two reasons, or two that I can immediately think of, but it’s all down to technology. The newsgathering technology is so much more sophisticated nowadays and delivers the horrors to us almost immediately. And thanks to mobile phones, everybody can record these dreadful events, and often the most affecting footage comes from the phones of witnesses.
And then there is the internet. As I was at home on the laptop, news kept pinging in on Facebook, snippets from a Brussels-based former York journalist, and news of someone who lived down our old street. Both are safe, thankfully.
It is always hard to know what to say about these events, and some of what is being said this morning hardly helps. Thank you to the Sun for pointing out that last month David Cameron said Europe helps make Britain safer – “How hollow that sounds today.”
That comment sounds kind of hollow to me too, a little too opportunistic, a little too quick to link one thing to another. There is talk of war and how this war compares to past wars; and there is discussion of whether or not this is a war, with the Guardian offering the following: “Talk of war amounts to handing Isis the victory it needs. It is a vocabulary that lends Isis a certain and entirely unwarranted legitimacy, by casting it almost as a state.”
I’d say that was about right. And the lessons? Better use of intelligence, I guess. Let the last word go to a cartoon. Colombian cartoonist Vladimir Flores draws Tintin reading the headlines and saying: “Mon Dieu…!” His cartoon went viral on social media yesterday, perhaps because it says it all.