Not (Just) a Tragedy! Fanatics and Their Atrocities

Russell Blackford

Every week, it seems, we’re confronted by the news—and with it, the horrible images—of large-scale murderous acts carried out by individuals or small groups possessing no state sanction. As I write, one week has passed since the Bastille Day attack in Nice, on France’s glorious Côte d’Azur. In this case, more than eighty people were massacred (and hundreds were injured) by Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, a Tunisian with a French residency permit. The killer drove a nineteen-ton truck through a large crowd of holiday revelers, mowing down men, women, and children and leaving behind a path of suffering and carnage before he was eventually shot dead by police officers. Video footage of the aftermath is available on the Internet, and it is shocking, troubling, heartbreaking.

France has suffered numerous attacks by homicidal ideologues, including the Charlie Hebdo murders in January 2015 and the Paris attacks in November of the same year. During the latter, suicide bombers and gunmen killed 130 people and injured many more (seven of the attackers also died). However, the most monstrous such occasion to date occurred in the United States on September 11, 2001, with nearly three thousand deaths and twice that number wounded. Much more recently in the United States, in June 2016, Omar Mateen massacred forty-nine people before being killed himself at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. The Boston Marathon bombing in April 2013 killed “only” three victims but left many others injured.

My own country, Australia, was shocked as events unfolded during the Sydney Siege on December 15–16, 2014, which culminated in three deaths (including that of a jihadist gunman). Many more Australians were killed in the Bali bombings of October 12, 2002 (eighty-eight Australians among a total of 202 dead, plus another two hundred injured). These bombings took place at Kuta Beach, a popular destination for Western tourists. Further attacks occurred in Bali three years later, resulting in another twenty deaths. Similarly notable are the Madrid train bombings of March 2004 (192 dead, plus thousands of injuries) and the London bombings of July 7, 2005 (fifty-six dead, including four jihadist perpetrators, plus hundreds of injuries).

And the list goes on… I mean no disrespect to any readers affected by events that I have not singled out for mention. To this point, I’ve focused upon attacks on Western countries and tourist districts favored by Westerners, but of course there have been large-scale terrorist atrocities in many parts of the world. In September 2004, nearly four hundred people died during the terrible events of the Beslan school hostage-taking in Russia. Many more have died in murderous attacks of one kind or another in Africa and the Middle East, on the Indian subcontinent, and elsewhere.

I’ve also focused on attacks commonly attributed to jihadists, by which I mean Islamist extremists who subscribe to an ideology of personal violence in service to their religion or god. It should, of course, be acknowledged that motivations are unclear in some of these cases (perhaps even with respect to the Bastille Day attack, although it currently appears that Bouhlel was radicalized, not long before his rampage, by jihadist mentoring and propaganda). Likewise, we should acknowledge the numerous large-scale killings unconnected with jihadists or any form of Islam. Perhaps the most notable, so far this century, was the campaign of mass murder perpetrated by the right-wing ideologue Anders Breivik in Norway on July 22, 2011. In the United States, we cannot ignore seemingly random and senseless shootings such as that at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012.

In contemplating all these horrors, I’m struck by the accumulating magnitude of suffering, misery, and waste of human life. Cynics sometimes dismiss such events as insignificant against the background of death and mayhem from warfare, “ordinary” homicides, and (though there are complexities here) the world’s huge annual toll of suicides. But the cynics can’t have this all their own way. Mass murders have immense and dreadful consequences for those immediately affected; in addition, they disrupt and traumatize entire communities and societies, creating environments of fear.

Notwithstanding my feelings of sorrow and pity, I’m often annoyed (or more than that) when politicians refer to murderous acts of terrorism as “tragic” or as “tragedies.” Perhaps I’m being slightly unfair: prestigious dictionaries such as the Oxford English Dictionary provide several definitions for each of these words, including definitions that amount to “deeply lamentable” (for tragic) and (in the case of tragedy) something like “a deeply lamentable sequence of events.” The Bastille Day attack, for example, was obviously a tragedy within that definition. Still, the actions of jihadists, politically motivated fanatics such as Breivik, and other big-thinking murderers are not merely lamentable—not even gravely and deeply so. They provoke understandable condemnation and anger.

In the case of jihadist terrorism in particular, there’s an appearance of many mainstream politicians and journalists downplaying this while reaching for language that sounds noble and sorrowful—yet detached. At one level, this may appear justified. I can understand an urge to avoid rhetoric that will heighten fears, incite panic, and further inflame anti-Muslim prejudice. That said, the atrocities of religious and political ideologues are willed, carefully premeditated acts. If we want an honest cultural conversation about violence and terror, these acts are best labeled as precisely as possible. We can speak without embarrassment about Nazi atrocities and Stalinist atrocities, and we ought to speak honestly and accurately about jihadist (or extreme-Islamist) atrocities. When it appears that a politician or a well-meaning journalist is deliberately avoiding such straightforward labeling, it can appear sanctimonious and even indecent.

I do, of course, advocate taking time before being too certain of a particular attacker’s motivation. Mistakes are often made in a rush to judgment, and this applies to a wide range of situations. But premeditated acts of murder motivated by religious or political fanaticism are never merely “tragedies” or “tragic.” Let’s be more honest; let’s stop using those words.

Russell Blackford

Russell Blackford is a conjoint senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of Newcastle (Australia) and a regular columnist for Free Inquiry. His latest book, The Tyranny of Opinion: Conformity and the Future of Liberalism (2019), is published by Bloomsbury Academic.