The orchestrated jihadist attacks on Paris were an abomination. And the worst of the atrocities took place at a rock gig in the Bataclan, where 89 people died. So where do we go from here?
A huge sense of shock and grief surged through the music community all over the world following the terrorist attacks in Paris. This is not, a voice inside every musician’s head said, the way things were meant to be.
To a greater extent than perhaps any other art form, contemporary music is essentially egalitarian and almost entirely oblivious to frontiers. Musicians generally travel as a way of life, taking their music from one country to another. As a result, most musicians had assumed that they occupied a kind of sacred space, where people of every political conviction and none could come together and respect one another’s differences, free of the threat of terrorist attacks. And that is, for the most part, how it had been.
I say ‘for the most part’ because in truth this is not the first time that the pact of mutual respect between musicians and the community they play for has been violated in a heart-stopping and murderous way. Those of us who lived through the 1970s in Ireland will be painfully aware that we too had shared the assumption that music and musicians were somehow immunised from the worst of what was happening in the wider political realm.
The troubles in Northern Ireland had been raging for almost half a decade. During that time, the most appalling things had been done by Republicans and Loyalists alike – not to mention the British Army, which had perpetrated the outrageous slaughter of 14 people in the city of Derry on Bloody Sunday.
However violent the IRA might have been, the butchers in the Loyalist paramilitary groups, who went about their grisly business in what became known as ‘murder triangle’, between Tyrone, Armagh and Down, were worse – far, far worse. They were less ‘capable’. They were less ‘organised'. They were less ‘credible’. But they were far more sickeningly sectarian and pathologically, irredeemably vicious. They routinely targeted innocent civilians, who were generally incapable of defending themselves. And as a result, they were responsible for some of the most barbaric and brutal actions of the entire guerrilla war.
Any objective evaluation of Loyalist paramilitaries’ modus operandi would surely define them as psychotic. And yet, they had seemed to respect the fact that most musicians came to play in Northern Ireland without any reference to the background, the religion or the political affiliations of their audiences. Whether it was Rory Gallagher storming the Ulster Hall or showbands turning the ballrooms into the proverbial sweat buckets, it mattered not a whit if you were Unionist or Nationalist, Protestant or Catholic. As long as you paid your money you were in. And what those inside, of every denomination and none, shared was a common love of the music and everything that went with it.
Until the last day of July 1975, that pact held good. And then everything changed overnight. In the early hours of July 31, five members of the Miami Showband were driving back in the direction of Dublin, from a gig in Banbridge, County Down. They were stopped at a bogus checkpoint in the ironically named townland of Buskhill. Up to ten members of the Loyalist UVF, four or five of whom were also members of the ‘legitimate’ local reserve army, the Ulster Defence Regiment, were at the checkpoint, dressed in British Army uniforms. Under instructions from a mysterious figure, also in a British army uniform, who arrived late on the scene, and had a pronounced English accent, they attempted to place a time-bomb in the back of the band’s van.
When they closed the back door, the resulting thump triggered the makeshift bomb, which exploded with horrendous consequences. Two of the loyalist paramilitaries, Harris Boyle and Wesley Somerville, were blown to kingdom come, their bodies dismembered grotesquely and burned beyond recognition. An arm belonging to Wesley Somerville, bearing the legend UVF Portadown, was ultimately found all of 100 yards from the scene.
The five band members, meanwhile, were thrown by the force of the blast into the field below the road where the van had been stopped. The order was given immediately to shoot them dead. In the event, three of the musicians – Fran O’ Toole, Brian McCoy and Tony Geraghty – were pursued and, in scenes that prefigured what happened at the Bataclan, gunned down cruelly in cold blood. The band’s bass player, Stephen Travers, who was shot with dum dum bullets, survived – though he was very badly injured and horribly traumatised by the experience. Sax player Des McAlea also escaped. He had been hit by the door of the van, which came off when the bomb exploded, but he was otherwise unscathed and eventually scrambled out onto the roadside after the attackers had gone, to raise the alert.
It was regarded by many as the end of what had been an era of innocence among Ireland’s musicians. Tours by UK bands were cancelled or became even less frequent. Showbands and groups from the Republic no longer felt that it was safe to play the North. It was the day the music died. The respect that had been accorded on all sides to song and dance men, and women too, was shattered. Terrorists had demonstrated that not even a man with a guitar slung over his shoulder was safe. The last illusion had been irredeemably blown away.
We knew about all of that. Of course we did. But those horrific events took place over forty years ago, and so to a large extent the Miami massacre had been forgotten. Besides, jihadists were as likely to be into music as anyone else. There had been no indication whatsoever that they would target either musicians or their fans. And so the crowds gathered as they always had done at music venues throughout Paris, on the night of November 13, without harbouring even the slightest fear of the bloody scenes that were about to unfold.
The terrorists’ plan was to mount a series of what the Provisional IRA had once called ‘spectaculars’ in different parts of the city of Paris. One member of the terrorist group tried to gain entry to the Stade Francais, where France were playing Germany in an international soccer friendly – and failed. Clearly the intention had been to detonate a bomb in the stadium. Frustrated in that mission, he triggered his suicide bomb close to the ground. On the pitch the players heard the noise, like fireworks going off in the background, as did the fans at the match. But the game went on and the people inside the ground remained safe, while elsewhere in Paris the darkest of forces were being unleashed.
One target was the Bataclan, a music venue in the 11th Arrondissement where the American hard rock band Eagles of Death Metal were playing. With the house lights off, the first shots that were fired sounded like firecrackers. But the horror that was unfolding soon became too visceral and intense to be mistaken for anything other than what it was. Blood splattered onto people’s shirts that felt at first like water. Bodies fell down. Something primal took hold. Fans, suddenly aware that they were being attacked, ran for cover. The indiscriminate shooting went on: like the massacre of the Miami Showband, it was a heinous and cowardly attack that turned the Bataclan into a slaughterhouse, as individuals were picked off ruthlessly, one by one, by the jihadists.
Descriptions of what happened in the Bataclan underline the irredeemable barbarism of those responsible. To walk into a packed venue and open fire on utterly defenceless, unarmed people, who were there for nothing more complicated than to enjoy the music and have a good time together, is surely the ultimate eye-to-eye betrayal of what it is to be here on earth, and to love your fellow human beings.
Amid scenes of twisted cruelty – which contrasted with the immense courage and extraordinary solidarity shown by so many of the fans under attack – a total of 89 people were killed and 200 wounded, some of them very badly. The band, realising that a catastrophe was happening in the auditorium, left the stage and understandably bolted from the venue as quickly as they could. But their entourage did not escape in the same way, with the band's merchandise manager, Nick Alexander, among the victims. Tragically also, three members of the staff of the Paris office of Universal Music, the record company with which Eagles of Death Metal are signed, and who had come to hear their charges in action live, were murdered.
There are many hard questions that will have to be answered by the French authorities about what happened at the Bataclan. In particular, the response of the police, once the alarm had been raised, seems to have been woefully inadequate. It was a Friday night. There had been no expectation of trouble of this kind. That much must be acknowledged. And yet, it seems to border on criminal negligence that armed police arrived on the scene so long after the first shots were fired. People who escaped into the streets were pursued and mowed down. No one materialised to help or protect them. Scenes of black chaos ensued as ordinary citizens did their best to assist the wounded and the traumatised. And still, no gendarmerie came to assist. It is impossible to understand why.
What is undeniable is that security forces in Europe had failed to recognise the terrorist threat from within. The lessons of the massacre at their offices in Paris of members of the staff at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January of this year, were quickly forgotten. Highly dangerous individuals like Adbelhamid Abaaoud, named as the local ring-leader of the November 13th atrocities, Bilal Hadfi, Salah Abdeslam and Ahmad Almohammad were allowed to move, apparently with impunity, between Belgium, France and in some cases Syria.
In a bizarre twist, it has emerged that, earlier this year, Abaaoud had been sentenced in abstentia – he was in Syria at the time – to 20 years in prison in Belgium for his role in organising a jihadist cell in Verviers. There were videos of him online armed with a Kalashnikov. He had appeared in Islamic State’s English language magazine, Dabiq. He was very publicly out there spinning an IS propaganda line. And yet he made it all the way to Paris to press ‘go’ on a mass murder spree that would kill 130 people.
It is easy to be wise after the event.The whole of Europe is now on high alert. One of the great beauties of the European project was just how easy it had become, as a European citizen, to ghost from one country to another. But it looks now as if, for the foreseeable future, that freedom has been stolen from us all.
And the same applies to sporting fixtures and music concerts: there is no point in denying that security measures will have to be far more rigorous and intrusive than ever before. In countries like France, Belgium, Spain and Italy, there is a clear and ever-present danger. That is true too of Britain. And while it is not true of Ireland, there is no guarantee that it will always be thus. Poison has a way of spreading.
Since November 13, acres of newsprint have been consumed, in the belated attempt to understand how and why young citizens of France and Belgium, could have become so entranced by the crude, apocalyptic ideology of ISIS that they would carry out mass murder on such a grand scale. These youthful French muslims, almost all men, are – or rather were – skilled in the use of social media. They smoked hash. They drank alcohol. They played football. On the face of it, most of them seemed as unremarkable as any other bunch of grown-up kids.
There is no escaping the fact that the ghettoisation of Arabs and muslims in disadvantaged enclaves of French cities created a ground in which grievances were likely to fester. In this sense French society failed its immigrant communities. But the vast majority of those who grew up in these areas do not support mass murder, attacks on innocent people, the imposition of a particular strand of Islam on all, or even the notion of the so called Caliphate.
When it is ground down and analysed, there are three elements that define the toxic cocktail, a glug of which can trigger young men, and occasionally women, into embracing the evil spirit that lurks at the heart of fundamentalist Islamist thinking.
The first is testosterone. Boys gravitate to where there is a fight. Create a gang and the blood rises. We are all in this together. Give me a gun: I’ll show that my balls are bigger than yours.
The second is the sinister allure of social media, which adds a veneer of celebrity to jihadism, in a way that particularly appeals to young men. Join the movement, train in the use of arms and suddenly you are a player. Stick pictures of yourself on Facebook or Instagram carrying a Kalashnikov and now you really are hero-in-the-making. Spew bile and hatred in posts aimed at the infidels and, at least in your own mind, your stock rises even further. Declare yourself a martyr and the girls swoon.
The third is religion itself. However expertly people try to rationalise what is in the Qu’ran, there is no disputing that it provides a solid basis for acts of obscene barbarism, violence and revenge. The same, of course, is true of the Old Testament, a text from which Zionists derive the justification for acts of monstrous hatred against Muslims, which are essentially no different to those perpetrated by the terrorists behind the Paris attacks. But whether it is Shia butchering Sunni or the other way around, or the Wahhabi cult being violently imposed on entire States in the middle east and Africa, the capacity for carrying out brutal acts of violence is based on the zeal that comes from being a true believer.
It is hard to see a way forward out of this morass, so soon after savagery of this kind has been inflicted on a city and a people. The first instinct has to be to do whatever is necessary to reduce to the greatest extent possible the opportunity for similar attacks to be launched. But there will be no solution to the rise of jihadism until the root causes are addressed. And no matter how unpalatable it might seem to say this now, that means doing whatever is necessary also to change the dynamic in Arab-Israeli relations.
It means moving collectively against Zionist expansionism. It means breaking open the biggest prison in the world and freeing the people of Gaza, so that they can live their lives with dignity and equal respect. And it means driving on, to finally achieve a solution that will allow Israelis and Palestinians alike to live together peacefully in the tiny tract of land that they share, conflict over which has caused so much unnecessary and avoidable suffering and misery over the past sixty years.
On all sides, making that happen will take courage and, most of all, leadership. It won’t solve the baleful reality of what is happening in Syria or Iraq. But it might just help to cure the legitimate sense of victimisation and grievance felt by so many young muslims throughout Europe and further afield, as well as acting as a starting point for further, wider, peace negotiations. As we know from our experience here in Ireland, it is possible to wean would-be ‘freedom fighters’ off their addiction to the bomb and the gun. Here, it came far too late for the members of the Miami Showband, who were buried amid scenes of terrible sadness in the summer of 1975. But the hard work that went into the peace process ultimately paid rich dividends.
Perhaps, after all, there is a role for Ireland’s paramilitary veterans. Because no one knows better than they do the sheer futility of all that dreadful bloodshed...
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