The Banality of Madness

Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad                                                              (Longfellow, The Masque of Pandora)

History repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce                                                              (Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon)


For the modern world that does not believe in evil, but only in blame and victimhood, the currents of the present must augur an existential crisis; for we lack the language and even the thought to encompass the monstrous nature of events such as that which took place in Nice on Thursday evening. Families out enjoying a celebration are now the targets in an asymmetric war in which the mundane becomes the source of terror and mayhem, and in which fellow citizens become a proxy army infected as by some alien virus.

Without mitigating in any sense the awfulness for those involved, there are reassurances in all of this. It becomes clear that this has little to do with Islam, a religion with a long and noble spiritual history, so, perhaps after a period of doubt, we can embrace our Muslim neighbours and compatriots as fellow sufferers and accept their condemnation at face value and not as merely self-serving platitudes. For finally, the heart of IS is revealed not as piety but as pure evil, the offspring of madness and criminality. As their so-called caliphate is losing ground in Syria and Iraq, their remaining currency is only death, indiscriminate death to as many people as possible. For in their logic everyone is an infidel; whether Christian, Jew, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist or of no religion, if living in the lands outside the caliphate or if not at war with their own country.

As the shock of repeated tragedies wears down our vocabulary of outrage and horror until they become clichéd, we risk not indifference or terror, but levity. The spectacular insanity of Nice, in betraying our expectations of reason, humanity, compassion and mercy, cannot be encompassed by the rational mind, but only by something like absurdist theatre. Cartoonists understand this well and frequently tread the fine line between humour and offense. There is, of course, an antidote to this: as the ghost of Marley reminds Scrooge in Dickens’ Christmas Carol, mankind is our business and the common welfare.

The indiscriminate nature of such acts means we are all potential targets, but there is something comforting at the same time in knowing that this madness has taken on the whole world as its enemy and is unlikely to irrupt in our vicinity, or only as likely as anywhere else. We expect our government to take the necessary steps to protect the population, just as we would be wise to be more vigilant. We are going to have to live with this as the new reality for the foreseeable future, and factor in this risk as we do others in going about our daily lives. Otherwise, we should offer an empathetic Gallic shrug and get on with our business.


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