Vive la Fête . . . and to hell with the Jihad

16th July 2016 |


On the night before Quatorze Juillet hundreds of us, in the village of Aspiran, sat down to dinner together under the plane trees with bottles of wine, to eat melon, ham, grilled sausage and lamb chops, cheese and ice cream. It’s a tradition in many French villages and a wonderful way for people to enjoy their sense of belonging to the community.

People who ride motorcycles have (or certainly should have) a much more conscious concern about the risks they are taking than the average motorist, who scarcely thinks about it at all. So the question of risk has fascinated me for decades, and particularly the way in which risk is manipulated for commercial and political profit. Of course the mundane business of insurance benefits from it enormously, but this year especially, on both sides of the Atlantic, fear-mongering has had some spectacular political successes, and the “jihadist menace” throws even more fuel on the fire.

Like many people of my generation, I imagine, I can’t stop comparing the situation in Europe today with my memories of wartime London. For a year, in 1944 and ’45, England was under attack by flying bombs and rockets. There were more than 22,000 casualties from the flying bomb alone, and a high proportion of those was in London where I was living at the time. So through most of my 14th year I was accustomed to the sound of these things flying in overhead, usually at night, and landing somewhere with a big “crump” – usually far away but sometimes frighteningly close.

I never thought that one of them would hit me – although I was once chased down the road, as it seemed to me, by one that came gliding in very low. I was also quite sure that we would win the war and that before long they would stop coming. I suppose I would guess now my chances of being hit were around one in a thousand – I had no way of knowing then what they were. I considered them negligible. I don’t think they affected my behavour much and, for a boy,  they added a certain spice to everyday life.

The probability of my being targeted by a jihadist in Europe today must be around one in a million. I am four times more likely to be killed by a crashing airplane, and ten thousand times more likely to be killed on the road. So, much as I felt 70 years ago, I have no fear of being one of the victims of the current “wave of terror” and I also expect that it will be over some time soon unless, by over-reacting, we make it a lot worse.

At the same time as being horrified by the violence and deeply sympathetic to the victims, it is terribly important not to think of this as the end of life as we know it. In 1944 there were concerts in the Royal Albert Hall and all over England. Nobody thought, OMG what if a bomb were to fall on it.

Instead of fearing, uselessly, for our skins we could put a lot more energy into wondering why so many men and women are willing to throw away their lives in a violent gesture, or risk their families in desperate ventures at sea, and what part we in the pampered West have played in all this.
From the tragedy at Nice I rescued one bit of morbid humour.

It was the day the algorithms went horribly wrong. As I read a long account on my Mac of this ghastly rented truck mowing down crowds of holiday-makers the text was interspersed with a series of ads  –––  from a car rental company.