How do you drive a van into a crowd of people? What dark justifications gird your mind as the key turns in the ignition and your foot connects with the pedal? What aberration of the human soul seeks the glory of God in the random slaughter of the innocent?
The terrorist attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils force us to confront these bleak questions. Fourteen people lie dead after vehicle-ramming, the latest innovation in fanatical carnage, visited the streets of Spain last Thursday. The victims include tourists and locals, young and old. An Italian father on holiday with his wife and children and an American husband celebrating his wedding anniversary. A student killed in front of his girlfriend and an 80-year-old woman mown down in cold blood. The senseless cruelty cannot fail to horrify.
Or can it? Even for the turbulent times we live in, it seems like Barcelona has loitered low in our priorities. It did not even make the top story on Friday’s 10 O’Clock News — barely 24 hours after the atrocity.
Maybe Barcelona has not touched us as keenly as past outrages. Maybe we are becoming inured to violence choreographed for maximum coverage on 24-hour news and social media. The year is not yet eight months gone and already we have witnessed Islamist attacks in Manchester, Westminster, and on London Bridge and an anti-Muslim assault on worshipers at Finsbury Park Mosque.
Or maybe we just want to avoid the implications of yet another onslaught against the West.
Consider how much attention has been dedicated to events in the United States, from Charlottesville to Donald Trump’s handling of the roiling tensions in its wake. We have expended far more energy execrating bigoted losers on a pathetic march than we have discussing how to disrupt and defeat the fundamentalists committing massacres in our city centres.
The news media is awash with talk of removing historical symbols of discrimination as a remedy to white nationalism but there is little to be heard about treating the symptoms of Islamist ideology. Charlottesville has transfixed us while Barcelona has barely stirred our attention.
Why? Because Charlottesville feels like an easier fix. We can condemn President Trump, castigate his supporters as a Nazi monolith, and offer up a resounding cry of ‘no pasaran’. It is altogether more palatable to tear down flags and statues than it is to face up to the dangers of Islamism.
This is not to minimise the troubling trends across the Atlantic. The emergence of a small but vocal hardcore of white supremacists is shameful and the President’s inability to issue an unequivocal condemnation of skinheads has confirmed for many Americans, including some who voted for him, that he was the wrong man for the job.
Nor should we dismiss calls to challenge the remnants of hatred in the United States that have become rallying points for ethnic nationalists. The Confederate Flag is an icon of sedition and the foul prejudice of racism; there is no reason it should fly from any public building in the United States.
General Robert E Lee may have been romanticised in Dixie ballads as a ‘good ole rebel’ but he was traitor and few nations erect monuments to mutineers. Better a statue to Daniel James Jr, one of the Tuskegee Airmen and the first black full general in the US military. Born and raised in the segregationist South, prejudice back home did not stop ‘Chappie’ James Jr flying 101 missions over Korea and 78 over Vietnam.
If we can summon the moral clarity to challenge this brand of extremism, why are we so queasy when it comes to another closer to our shores? Why did one newspaper columnist ask after Thursday’s gruesome happenings: ‘What have Catalans ever done to Muslims?’ We might well ask what exactly Parisians or Israelis or little girls at a Manchester pop concert are supposed to have done.
The unfortunate truth is that we are more tolerant of Islamist radicalism than we are of white militancy, a distinction born of a well-meaning desire not to appear biased against any one group. But it is an illogical dividing line for a liberal society to draw — the fascism of straight-arm salutes and the fascism of religious medievalists must both be resisted.
Some might counter that the march in Charlottesville was unique, that we are unaccustomed to such things in Britain, but in fact we had our own Charlottesville just three months ago. In June, Al Quds Day was marked in London. It is an annual anti-Israel demonstration where some of the most extreme views about the Jewish state are aired.
This year 700 marchers gathered, waving Hezbollah flags and carrying banners declaring ‘We are all Hezbollah’. Hezbollah is an anti-Semitic terrorist organisation. A speaker at the rally told the crowd that ‘Zionists’ were ‘responsible for the murder of the people in Grenfell’. You may have noticed that Al Quds Day did not catch quite as much media attention as Charlottesville.
In the days following terror attacks, we light candles, project flags onto world landmarks, and share our shock and sympathy online. These are the acts of decent and sincere people but they cannot be the beginning and end of our reaction to offensives like Barcelona. We cannot demand swift and uncompromising action when the far-right rears its white-hooded head then turn suddenly more dainty when the threat comes from Islamists.
Just as we are prepared to get a grip on the sinister forces of the ‘alt-right’ (a fancy name for neo-Nazis), we must not shy away from conversations about Islamism. This includes security, immigration controls, counter-extremism programmes, ridding mosques of hardline preachers, and bringing pressure to bear on internet giants to remove jihadist material from the web.
The twin outrages of Charlottesville and Barcelona should mark a turning point. No more double standards. No more dodging the tough issues. Extremists are in our midst and they must be challenged and overcome — all of them.
Here’s one name you’ll probably be familiar with and another that you might be hearing for the first time: Sir Vince Cable and Stanley Fischer. The former is the leader of the Liberal Democrats and widely credited with predicting the 2007 financial crash. The latter is the vice chairman of the US Federal Reserve and a world-renowned economist.
This week both issued warnings about the state of the economy. Sir Vince told an audience at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, where he was promoting his first novel Open Arms, that another credit bubble was forming thanks to excessive consumer borrowing. Quite simply, too many of us are spending money we don’t have. He also warned the plans to loosen bank regulations in the US could lead to a repeat of the 2007 crisis. At almost the same time, Professor Fischer was making strikingly similar predictions to a financial newspaper.
We still haven’t fully emerged from the last recession. Politicians must pay heed to prevent us slipping into another one.
Spare a thought for novelist Andrew O’Hagan who ‘came out’ as a nationalist in a lofty speech to a literary audience last week. Barely 48 hours later, Nicola Sturgeon summarily distanced herself from the term. O’Hagan is an accomplished author but when it comes to politics he can’t read the writing on the wall.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Have your say on the issues raised here by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, remembering to reference the column. Contact Stephen at email@example.com.