- 17 Sep 15
With Europe's response to the refugee crisis lacking in effectiveness and empathy, the threat of ISIS suggests WB Yeats' most chilling words are now perfectly fitting for these times...
It is hard to believe that it has come to this. Thousands of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa have perished off the coast of Europe in recent months. And still they keep on coming, streaming in their tens of thousands, across both land and sea, in search of a better, more humane quality of life.
The television pictures of masses of ordinary people, who have embarked on a long march towards what they hope will be freedom, are desperately moving. A huge number have crossed the ocean in boats, arriving in the sanctuary of the Greek islands of Kos and Lesbos. These small Mediterranean enclaves are close to breaking point now, unable to cope with the numbers or provide adequate food and shelter.
And still they come. The overland route has taken even greater tribes from Syria and Iraq, through Turkey, to Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and Austria, before finally reaching Germany. It is seen as The Holy Grail and for good reason. So far at least, refugees have been treated with dignity and respect there.
Thousands of migrants have landed in Italy. A section of the French port of Calais, meanwhile, operates as a kind of open prison, where refugees and migrants gather, desperate to make their way to the UK. But in a country with a Conservative government, that is effectively allowing the gruesome figure of Nigel Farage and his loathsome UKIP party to dictate the terms on migration, it is perfectly clear that they are most unwelcome.
The toll on the people making these extremely hazardous journeys is immense. More than 2,600 migrants have died. Hunger and illness are afflicting many more. It is a humanitarian crisis of appalling magnitude. “The sky is crying,” Elmore James sang, “Look at those tears roll down the street.” Tears, it seems, are everywhere at the moment...
Europe has been slow to respond. It is easy to understand why. There has been a menacing political shift to the right in the UK and in France. Some of the newer EU states remain locked in an even more neanderthal, conservative view of the world that – at best – is straight out of the 1950s.
In Poland, anti-migrant demonstrations have confirmed that a sickening brand of racism holds sway there. In Hungary, they have erected barbed wire fences to keep the pilgrims out. Right now, only Germany can truly afford to hold its head high, having agreed to take in 80,000 refugees. But, let down by their European allies, who have been grotesquely mean-spirited in their reaction, the Germans too are beginning to feel besieged.
And still they keep on coming. Relatively speaking, Ireland’s response has been generous. We have committed to welcoming 4,000 refugees, representing just below 0.1% of the population of this country; Britain has offered to take 20,000, which equates to 0.03% of the population of the UK. The figures speak for themselves. Curiously, there is no sign of the Scottish Nationalist Party offering to triple that quota for our Caledonian cousins’ plot of land, north of the Tyne. France has said it will receive 24,000. They are not much better than the British.
The sickening thing is that there are lives at stake, and every hour that we do nothing guarantees that more migrants will die, often in circumstances that are too terrible to contemplate. What to do, of course, represents a genuine dilemma. It is hard to escape the creeping feeling that the ideology of ISIS is an evil equal to Nazi-ism, and that it is likely to be defeated only by a show of collective military strength similar to that which defeated the Fuhrer and his armies.
All of which means that we are living through a moment which confounds everything that we might ever have assumed, about the innate decency of people. It highlights the shocking truth that half the world, and more, is ruled by despotic tyrants who place no value whatsoever on human life. And it calls to mind one of the greatest poems in the English language canon, written, as it happens, by an Irishman...
“Things fall apart,” William Butler Yeats wrote in his powerful and visionary work, The Second Coming, composed in 1919, in the aftermath of the first World War. “The centre cannot hold / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
Looking at those lines now, it is impossible to escape the feeling that Yeats could have been writing about the events that have been unfolding in the Middle East and North Africa over the past few months. Indeed, to an extent that is utterly extraordinary, the poem seems to foreshadow the death of Aylan Kurdi, the three year old refugee from Kobane in Syria, whose small body was washed up cruelly on a beach in Turkey, just a few miles from where his family had set off in a boat, hoping against hope, that in the long run they would reach Canada.
“The blood-dimmed tide is loosed,” Yeats went on, “and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned.”
Innocence has been drowned. And we have the monstrously poignant photographs to prove it.
And then he added two lines that feel as brutally relevant now as they were in the second decade of the 20th Century, almost a hundred years ago. “The best lack all conviction,” Yeats reflected wearily, “while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”
It would be hard to find a neater summation of the poisonous truth about the extremist religious ideologists that trade under the banner of Islamic State: “The worst are full of passionate intensity.” This is what makes them such a dangerous force. They have refined the message of Mohammed, down to a brutal, violent, bare- knuckle version of its essence. Join the caliphate or die. Unbelievers can be massacred at will. It is us or them. And since we have God on our side, we will prevail. There is no room for philosophical discussion or dissent. You are either with us – or we will wipe you out.
The imagery used by William Butler Yeats was rooted in the Christian tradition. But the apocalyptic vision, which the poem conjures, has much in common with the megalomaniac insistence of ISIS that they alone have access to the truth – and their mission is to enforce it, if necessary by wiping out any and all potential opposition.
“The Second Coming,” Yeats exclaimed. “Hardly are those words out / When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi / Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert / A shape with lion body and the head of a man / A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun / Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it / Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.”
Behind the vivid phrase “a gaze blank and pitiless as the sun”, you can visualise the soldiers of Islamic State, who have beheaded over 300 people since July 2014, lurking with violent intent. Rape them. Stone them. Behead them. If they don’t convert they will be crushed. Watch and laugh as they flee. See the television pictures, the boats stuffed to bursting point with human flotsam. Your people. Co-religionists most of them. But they are heretics. They are misguided. They are evil. Let them scurry away like rats and drown. Every family that departs leaves a bigger space for your people to occupy. Soon the region will be yours. Or that is your ambition.
“The darkness drops again,” Yeats wrote, “but now I know / That twenty centuries of stony sleep / Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle.”
Again, it feels like it could be a reference to the cradle in which George W. Bush came into the world. You look now at the extent of the savagery that is rampant all across the Middle Eastern region, and wonder: can anything ever have been so grotesquely misguided as the war which the then-U.S President decided to prosecute in Iraq, vexing the already troubled politics of the region to nightmare – and worse.
“And what rough beast,” the astonished poet asks in conclusion, “its hour come round at last / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
These are among the most memorable lines in English language poetry. There may be disagreement among scholars as to their precise meaning, but that seems, in many way to be cleared up by Islamic State. Yeats felt that the end of the Christian era was nigh, and he was probably right. That had been ushered in by the story of the birth of Christ in Bethlehem – and so Yeats plays with the idea that a new ideology will have its roots in the same place.
The image of a rough beast, ’slouching’ towards Bethlehem to be born is a chilling one. He might, of course, have said Damascus and the picture would be complete. The question now is: can anyone turn the blood-dimmed tide back? Can anyone stop ISIS from reaching Damascus – and carrying on their forward march?
It is a crisis on a scale that makes the stupid shenanigans in Northern Ireland over the past fortnight seem like the work of fools – which of course it is. On the other side of the coin, there is a small glimmer of hope to be gleaned from the accession to the leadership of the Labour Party in the UK of Jeremy Corbyn. Perhaps he will make Labour unelectable. But, equally, there is a possibility that he will shake the British state to its foundations.
Where he stands on ISIS is a different matter entirely...