Anyone who has experienced the manifest beauty and wonderful joie-de-vivre of Nice at its best will have been deeply moved at the shocking mass murder on the Promenade des Anglais July 18. But Europe must look into its own heart too, to find answers..
I remember arriving in Nice for the first time.
You land in Nice Côte d’Azur airport, and turn east towards the city itself. Out on the main road, it feels like you have landed in a movie. You hit the Promenade des Anglais immediately. It is lined with palm trees that reach up towards the blue heavens above, lending the whole place an exotic atmosphere that is full of boundless promise. To a young Irishman, who’d only seen palm trees in Hollywood movies, it seemed like entering a different world.
The thrill of zooming in along the Promenade for the first time may never be repeated with quite the same intensity, but the feeling that this is a unique, beautiful and special place has never diminished. I was with Máirín when we swung along the seafront for the first time, the rollicking ocean down on our right like an invitation and the metropolis shimmering in the Mediterranean heat ahead of us.
It is easy to fall in love with Nice, with its sun, its extravagance, its teeming fountains and its buildings that hint at a rich seam of stories. And the sea, oh the sea, is grá real mo chroí: gazing into the great blue yonder, it speaks of an infinity of adventures past and present and the great world out there, that might be approached happily from the special angle that this playful, civilised harbour offers. On that first infatuation, Nice seemed to me like one of the great liberal, refined, cosmopolitan cities and that feeling has never diminished.
During the day, as a visitor, you can scout the Museum of Contemporary and Modern Art, the Matisse Museum, the Marc Chagall Museum, the Archeology Museum of Nice-Chimiez, the explosion of colour that is the flower market on the Cours Saleya, and the quieter reflections of the Palais Messéna, a museum which tells the story of Nice itself. In this marvellous metropolis, there is history, culture and the glorious sensuality of the everyday, as well as great art works, in particular of course from Matisse and Chagall, two of the giants of modern art.
In the evening, Vieux Nice – the old town – comes alive. People throng the streets, restaurants spill out onto the pavements and the feeling is one of celebration and conviviality as platters of seafood are presented to diners and bottles of wine are opened with a ‘pop’. It is an undeniably sexy place, with a sense that there is always a party about to start somewhere.
Inhibitions have been left at home. There is neither the studied cool of Paris nor the barely contained edginess of a city like Marseilles. In Nice, there is a raciness, a joie-de-vivre in the air, that spills over onto the streets and draws in locals and visitors alike. It is a place that, to me, has always felt comfortable in its own skin.
A Symphony That Never Ceases
Down around the port area the scent of romance is unmistakable. Yachts and boats dock for the night and the restaurants and bars are set up to welcome pleasure seekers ashore. People eat, drink and are merry. There is a frisson of decadence in the air as the night works its magic. As one travel writer sagely observed, Nice knows how to fire the appetites, and to satisfy them. But what about tomorrow? The prevailing attitude seems to be that we will think about tomorrow when it arrives...
But the real centre-piece of Nice has always been the Promenade des Anglais. It sweeps around the bay for all of seven kilometres. On the sea side, is the promenade itself. There are places for people to walk, to jog and to cycle. From early in the day till late, locals step out to do their thing – whatever that happens to be. They materialise on roller blades, on scooters, on bikes or pushing prams and buggies. There are walkers with zimmer frames, overweight joggers and sleek runners that do a convincing human impression of an antelope or a cheetah. All human life is here.
Below on the stony beach, in the summer people rub sun-screen on, lounge in the heat, read thick holiday books and get ready to take the plunge. At first, swimming in Nice might seem like a challenge: getting in and out of the water is a chore, until you do the obvious and buy swimming shoes. Suddenly, getting into the water is a doddle. Within seconds you are out of your depth. It can be choppy when the wind is up, but on a good day this is a great place to stretch out and swim.
The last couple of times we were there, we stayed in a place about ten minutes walk from the Promenade. The Hi-Hotel has its own slice of beach, and we could sequester on the strip of shingle before taking a dip. Afterwards, I’d go for a run for a few miles back towards the airport, surrounded by the great pageant of Nice life as it unfolds: young couples licking ice creams, children brandishing pastries, parents trying to keep their charges in line, cyclists ringing their bells. A song by The Band, ‘The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show’, might make a good soundtrack for what happens there from 8am in the morning to 2am at night: “When your arms are empty/ You got nowhere to go/ Come on down/ And catch the show…”
The place teems with life and energy. And there is a feeling that all notions of exclusion and prejudice are irrelevant. You see women wearing the hijab. Men in Mormon suits. Bare torso-ed roller bladers. Young ladies in short skirts and chiffon tops. Senior citizens of both sexes. Thousands of tattoos. Football shirts. Pork pie hats. Slip-on sandals. High boots. Shades of every type and description. The lot. And in the background is the sound of the sea. The waves crash on the shore and the water sucks on the stones as it slips away: it is a symphony and a drama that never ceases.
On the other side of the Promenade are the hotels, the restaurants and the casinos. Mammon has been here and left its imprint. But there is still a buzz of warmth and open-ness and a feeling that whatever your appetites might be, they will be sated. Sin seems like an idea from a different planet. Nice loves children, but it is an adult place. It doesn’t pretend to be otherwise. The invitation is to relax, wind down and enjoy yourself to the full. We have never left Nice unfulfilled. It is a wonderful place in which to lose yourself and recharge your batteries. It is romantic and lovely. It opens up those lucky enough to share in its heady brew to the experience of being human at its best.
Random Sectarian Murders
Knowing the Promenade des Anglais and its marvellous, democratic character – its joy and abundance and magic – makes what happened there on Bastille Day that much harder to compute. It is impossible to comprehend how anyone could know a place like this and decide that it was the right thing to do, to climb into the cab of an articulated truck, drive to this of all destinations and in a cold-blooded, pre-meditated way, set about slaughtering as many people as time might allow before engaging in a shoot-out with police officers.
On the face of it, it is among the blackest, most twisted outrages of recent times, even in a world that is sadly becoming more brutally familiar with epithet s like that, by the week. How can someone personally plan an action as grotesquely callous, bloody and destructive of human life? Among the thousands who thronged the Promenade on the night, it was entirely random who was mowed down by the truck, as it careened along the streets and up onto the footpaths, driven with who knows what mad light in his eye, by the mass murderer, Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel.
I remember walking the Promenade at exactly the same time of night, oblivious to the cares that might otherwise have assailed me, anywhere else in the world. It is that kind of place. And on Bastille Day there was an even greater atmosphere of people coming together to celebrate their, and our, common humanity in that old revolutionary spirit of liberty, equality and fraternity.
84 people have died. Some of the injured remain on the critical list. They were and are completely innocent victims of an act of sickening violence and cruelty, on a scale that defies language – and which can never, even in the remotest degree, be excused or mitigated.
We know now that Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel was a lone wolf. The organisation calling itself Islamic State has claimed the atrocity, but there is general agreement that Lahouaiej-Bouhlel was mentally ill. It is an aspect of the human condition that Islamist extremists are horribly capable of exploiting. Prof. Farhad Khosrokovar, an expert on jihadism and radicalism, was quoted in a piece by Lara Marlow in the Irish Times. “Before, depressed people committed suicide,” he said. “Now, the environment created by Islamic State leads them to act this way.”
Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel may not personally have been motivated by religious extremism. But those who preach the gospel on which he finally sucked are. Abu Mohamed al-Adnani, the spokesman for Islamic State, and one of the terrorist group’s most influential emirs, has propounded the theory of “lumpen terrorism”, calling on individual supporters across the world to carry out random, sectarian murders. “Kill the infidel,” he said in a statement issued in 2014, “whether he is a civilian or a soldier. Hit his head with a stone, slash his throat with a knife, run him over with your car, throw him from a high place, strangle him or poison him.”
While he had behaved like an infidel in his own life, there is little doubt that Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel took his cue from al-Adnani and those who have already followed his call, in France and elsewhere.
Putrid Legacy Of Colonialism
Where are we now? To walk along the Promenade des Anglais will never feel the same again. For the foreseeable future, this beautiful, inspiring stretch of earth will always be associated with death. Even after the flowers and the personal mementoes have been swept away, the air will be streaked with a lingering sadness. Our hearts are with the bereft people of Nice in this terrible moment.
We cannot switch memories like this off. Nor is there anything we can say to undo the past. But we must also remember that it is wrong to indulge the idea, as we so often do, that lives lost in the United States, or Europe, are more important than those lost in North Africa or the Middle East. The apocalyptic brutalism of Islamic State, which encourages the slaughter of anyone who is not an adherent of a particular, violent, narrow, authoritarian brand of Islam, is almost certainly the worst poison in the international body politic right now and it cannot be ignored. But countries that pretend to espouse democracy also have to look into their own hearts.
The Chilcott Report into the decision of the British Government under Tony Blair to support the decision of then-US President George W. Bush to launch a war in Iraq in 2003 offers a chilling insight into how feeble the democratic process can be when a man like Tony Blair – himself inspired by a sense of Christian mission – is in charge.
Six words from an email which Tony Blair wrote directly to Bush should be inscribed on his gravestone. “We will be with you, whatever,” he promised, claiming to speak for the British people despite the fact that millions had come out and marched in opposition to the war.
And so we must ask ourselves: what moral calculus gives us the right to assume that even the lives of the tragic, entirely innocent dead of the Promenade des Anglais count more than the thousands that have been killed as a result of the use of drone strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen? Or during the bombardment of Gaza, a city that has repeatedly been crushed by Israel? Or those who are numbered among the collateral victims of Bush’s war in Iraq that toppled Saddam Hussein and precipitated the murderous chaos that has ripped the region apart ever since, killing almost 200,000 civilians in Iraq alone, and directly leading to the rise of Islamic State?
This is a hard truth to acknowledge, much less to deal with. But until there is a recalibration of US policy and that of the main European military powers, including France, in relation to North Africa, Arab countries and the Middle East, no matter how hard the intelligence and security forces work, or how effective they are, it will not be enough.
Ultimately, given the toxic mix of ongoing local hatreds, and the corrosive legacy of colonialism, there is no short way to achieve peace in the region. There is little evidence that military interventionism has worked or will work. But what Europe certainly can do is to deal better with the consequence on its own doorstep of its highly profitable, historic intervention in the Arab world. Taking serious, visible initiatives to build the lines of communication and integration for Muslims in Europe, and in France in particular, would be a valuable first step. In parallel, there is an onus on adherents of Islam across Europe to ensure that those who preach sectarian hatred, barbarism and murder are isolated and faced down intellectually and morally. But as long as Arab blood is spilled lightly by Western forces in the Eastern Mediterranean and neighbouring countries, we can expect more murder and bloodshed to be perpetrated by Abu Mohamed al-Adnani’s new breed of “lumpen terrorists” on the streets of Europe.
What more can we say? This much at least: that I desperately want Nice to be able to put this baleful moment behind it and to rise again into the fullness of its historic greatness and beauty, as it did after the second World War. History marks us but it cannot be allowed to crush our best instincts.
In the final analysis, we have to believe that those who truly value the freedom of the human spirit that characterises the western democratic tradition at its best, and the city of Nice that I have known and loved, will ultimately prove to have the greater lasting power.
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