Among the many emotions stirred by the bombings in Brussels is one that’s hard to entirely describe. It’s there amid the tangled feelings that might once have been called ‘shock’ but are now closer to ‘affirmation’. Brussels is another affirmation of my lapsed optimism, my blown out hope that anything might be done about religious fanaticism. We are a species doomed to kill each other for as long as we retain our capacity to act in a state of utter delusion.
I suppose the feeling I’m trying to describe is part of my contrarian nature that sits deeper than my prevailing sense of anger. It’s not that I don’t understand why people are angry. I understand the ‘#StopIslam‘ hashtag more than I understand the many who ask Twitter to ‘#PrayForTheWorld‘. Prayer is an appeal (though telepathy) to a transcendent being who could play an active role in our affairs. We have done this for tens of thousands of years and show no signs of stopping, even if the number of prayers answered is still stuck at a well-verified zero. But that’s the problem with prayer. We can’t even be sure that we’re praying to the right god. Which of these transcendent beings are we meant to ask given the multitude our species has worshipped during our time on the planet? Which one is the true god? The Norse god Loki? Mbombo, the African god, who vomited out the world after a stomach ache? The Chinese god Pangu with his cosmic egg?
Prayer sometimes feels like it’s an abstraction that allows us to ignore the brutal nature of world affairs. Anger, by contrast, is our direct engagement. It is more human and, dare one say, a more honest response. If I don’t know what a god or gods look like, I certainly understand the knot of frustration that forms in my stomach whenever I hear about fanatics blowing themselves up. The tragedy is no worse because two of the bombs went off in an airport, of course, but airports are the cathedrals we’ve raised to the practical application of our science and technology. These extremists would bomb us back to travelling by camel or mule and that makes me deeply angry and it is a fervent anger because it is so easy to dwell upon.
Because it is easy to be angry I also find myself slowing down to avoid running into the back of others being driven along by the same rage. Anger really accounts for the slow-lane thinking of the far right and the ultra-conservatives who barely examine their surroundings because they are so utterly convinced by their direction of travel. They respond to every approach with a fist hammered down on their horn, drowning out anybody attempting to overtake them with reason. Their arguments are blaring and strident, ensuring that debate cannot interrupt their idling drive through what to them is Bleeding Obvious country. This is the environment where Katie Hopkins feels most at home, where she can call upon her remarkable gift of being able to take a kernel of truth, wrap it in moral outrage, dip it in populist angst, and then sprinkle it with some headline-grabbing venom. She might be right to say that we have a problem with migration and Islam but if we were going to be so reductive we might also argue that the problem is also caused by Christianity, free market economies, consumer culture, and the success of the English language. As Disraeli once said: ‘this shows how much easier it is to be critical than to be correct’.
Really, Hopkins is a greater problem for the moderate and centrist right. She is a gift to the left who use her to shame conservatives of every shade. But that is true of all who exist on the far right. The ultra-conservatives want us to rain down vengeance on the Middle East and they care little about who they kill. It’s about carrier fleets parked off the coast in order to make Iran cower. A show of force is what’s needed and is always needed, they say, because it’s the only language that these damn fanatics understand. It’s Russia they suddenly admire because Putin has proven to be a true leader, a man who speaks the language of the ultra-conservatives in that he speaks no language at all except the language of action. It’s ‘us’ and it’s ‘them’ and there’s nobody in between. They would have the Middle East erupt into a holy war the likes of which we have never before seen.
To argue against them is the battle that smart demagogues on the right particularly relish. They have a hand-grenade piety, which they like to causally drop into your lap and dare you to replace the pin. Because to do so is to oppose their views and, by opposing them, you are conforming to the worst stereotypes that rattle around in their bombast. They accuse critics of supporting the worst kind of radicals on the other side. And they have a point, to a point… Many on the far left make terrible moral equivocations and make their bed with vile extremists simply because they appear to share the same ideology. Yet, equally, many on the left aren’t bad people in the very same way that the majority of ultra-conservatives are not bad. Both have good intentions but are attracted to the politics of absolute power. The left believe in the absolutes of intellect. On the right it’s the absolute of action. They believe that conflicts can be resolved if you just have a bigger gun than your opponent. Their views are naive and reductive but it would be wrong to argue that somebody like Katie Hopkins is ‘as bad as ISIS’. Her critics demean themselves whenever they make that moral equivalence. Yet, similarly, it is also shameful if those on the right accuse every critic of supporting the militants. It’s shameful because few moderates, even many on the left, would quibble about the use of bombs if they could magically eradicate only the world’s bad guys. Sadly, however, such smart munitions don’t exist. There are just dumb bombs and slightly brighter missiles that would bring more chaos to the region, fracturing an already fractured conflict into thousands of irreparable pieces.
That, I suppose, is the problem that right whingers seem to have with Obama, who they portray as if he were a Kenyan Stalin. The armchair warriors can move their carrier groups around their imaginary globe, calming hotspots with a few cruise missile strikes. They might even deploy their pretend troops on the ground and imagine the brief but hot war that would end with their troops victorious. However, the view from the White House just happens to be less fanciful. There we have a President who understands the will of the American people, their jaded opinions of government, the problems they face at home, as well as the threats they face from the emerging superpower in the East. Trump is leading among conservatives in America because he promises to be strong but it’s very noticeably a strength couched in terms of non-engagement. ‘We’re not going to be stupid any more’, he tells packed crowds. He means that America will no longer pay to solve the world’s problems and that others should pay America. America under Trump would look inward and build a wall to keep the world out. In tone, attitude and degree it’s all arch (perhaps even parody) conservatism but the effect would not be too different to the Obama years except with more trade wars and much sillier hair.
America has been chastened by poorly conceived interventions. To really make a difference in the Middle East or elsewhere would involve a toll of American lives that no American president could countenance in a modern media informed world. Not that this occurs to the ultras who genuinely believe that events such as Brussels prove that we’re involved in an existential struggle with ISIS. They say that this is the clash of cultures that Samuel Huntington predicted would consume the world. Here marks the moment when Judaeo-Christian culture makes its stand or is consumed by the wave of militant Islam.
And they might be right but more likely it is that they’re wrong. Only with hindsight does history appear that simple. As it is lived, it is often incompressible and that, perhaps, is why many over on the hard right cannot cope with differences of opinion. They wish it were as simple as their neatly drawn map of the world, where they could bomb with impunity. Then they would be happy because tanks, artillery, and carpet bombing are much easier to understand than what we have now which is messy, nuanced, and complex.
‘Exterminate the brutes!’ exclaimed Kurtz at the end of The Heart of Darkness. It is an extreme position but in the wake of Brussels it feels compelling and instinctive. But that is why events such as Brussels and Paris are happening. Believers, who wish to bring about their holy apocalypse, would force us to become as fanatical and simplistic as they. The thing they really fear the most is our moderation, compassion, and capacity to reason. They are the qualities that will ensure that we will prevail each and every time that predisposition towards fanaticism returns to blight our species.