Atrocities committed by guns seem almost old fashioned and preferable to that which happened last night in Nice. Guns belong on the other side of a legal divide. We can simply discount them, if we so wish, because they hard to get and the getting of them usually involves shady blackmarket deals with individuals who are themselves shady and so very blackmarket. That a terrorist can use a truck to kill 84 people beckons us to another reality. ‘What next?’ we are right to ask and the truth is that we simply don’t know. And it’s that not knowing that makes Nice particularly frightening.
9/11 was another such moment when a thing of modern everyday life was turned on us but there is an order of scale between an airliner and a truck. That a truck can kill this many people makes for a shocking statistic. Yet the reality is that in a violent world, there’s very little that can’t be turned into a weapon. Cavemen used bones and sticks. Start from there and work your way through the whole of human history and there’s little invented that can’t be used to kill.
It’s too easy, then, to say Nice was a ‘tragedy’. Tragedies involve something that wasn’t designed or of human making. Atrocities are not tragedies. They are atrocities. There is a reason why our language has two words to describe two different types of terrible event.
A tragedy is being born in the wrong time or place, with a condition that affects some innocent life. A tragedy is a stroke of bad luck and the only bad luck was that of the people caught up in this outrage. Yet, perhaps, even to say it was ‘bad luck’ is itself to misrepresent it. Those people should have been in the right place at the right time. To say otherwise means admitting that there is nowhere where we should gather and think ourselves safe. We should not give the terrorists the advantage by suggesting that gathering together to celebrate Bastille Day was bad luck. It wasn’t bad luck. It was a deliberate assault on normality. It was the theft of a state of mind that should be natural to all of us: safety in numbers, social order, and even civilisation itself.
The problem is that we all live with a very insular view of reality. The world was always capable of such atrocities and it always will be. The world hasn’t changed, merely out perception of the world. Nice involves a momentary shift in perception but it’s noticeable how quickly the false reality snaps back.
One moment stood out in the hours of coverage last night. On Sky News a witness to the attack spoke at length. Perhaps she was allowed to speak too long in the gap that always occurs between the story breaking and proper information emerging. The woman found herself searching for things to say. At one point her self-awareness seemed to disappear and she made an unguarded comment. She said, to paraphrase, that the atrocity had ruined what had been a nice day of shopping and she had no interest in the lovely things she had bought.
The instinctive reaction was the reaction that erupted on social media. The woman was being called out for ‘first world’ privilege. Yet, with hindsight, it wasn’t the witness who was suffering a problem of perspective but they people who went to Twitter to abuse her. Not being in the heart of the atrocity, they could speak and think like rational people viewing the event through the lens of their false reality. In the heart of the moral storm, nothing can or does make sense. Shock makes us do and say the most terrible things. Really, it is first world privilege to not realise this and to respond accordingly.
A day later, then, it makes no sense to say simply that it was a tragedy or a crime or even that we should think of Nice. That again is to bracket the events and treat them as being discontiguous from the reality that surrounds us. Nice was and is a facet of the totality and each of our realities is part of the reality of Nice. That’s not just to mean that you or I could have been part of the events but that we all share a responsibility for finding a solution and the best way, as always, is to begin here with calm words and some serious reflection.