Fintan O’Toole (F O’T) is an opinion writer for The Irish Times. He is one of Ireland’s best-known columnists, with a large readership in Ireland and internationally. He is also a well-regarded theatre critic. Writing on July 16th, directly after the Bastille Day killings in Nice, F O’T defines the line between civilised, democratic society and its nihilistic opponents as the line between terror and pity.
Immediately F O’T has waded into the language quagmire which conflates civilised with democratic and describes certain perpetrators of violence as nihilists. The people who mow down other people, with a truck driven along a sea-side promenade as citizens and tourists enjoy a fireworks display, do not describe themselves as nihilist, if nihilists are people who have no beliefs or who believe in nothing. Like many of the people who fly fighter bombers, guide drone weapons and sit on the boards of arms’ manufacturers, they have beliefs of various kinds, including, very often, religious beliefs.
According to F O’T, it is all a matter of luck. Some of us (sic)
…are lucky enough to live in times and places where there are no warring tribes, no marauding armies, no exterminationist ideologies, no messianic cults, no megalomaniacal emperors, no young men convinced that they can become immortal by preying like vampires on other people’s morality.
Who does the ‘us’ refer to? Such lists always present problems of ‘what is missing?’ How about people lucky enough to live under the protection of one of the great power blocs, in particular the ones with weapons of mass destruction; lucky enough to live in a country where the international arms industry is concentrated?; lucky enough to live where what the state’s army does is legitimate and not terror, though it creates as much carnage as the lorry driver and his fellows; lucky enough not to be made so desperate by economic and war circumstances that you load your family onto makeshift vessels and venture into the sea to face the gun-boats?
Using ‘luck’ in this opinion piece removes agency from human endeavours. It’s ‘luck’ then that a country has factories, colleges, schools, material goods in excess, farms that produce food and money, beneficial trade relations, sought-after currencies and gold reserves, nuclear and other weapons, stock markets and hedge funds.[pullquote]Using ‘luck’ in this opinion piece removes agency from human endeavours[/pullquote]
Globalisation works, as you’d expect, across the globe, but unevenly, as within benefiting countries such as Ireland. What hope then for deficit countries, like, say, unlucky Bangladesh?
F O’T offers us pity as a counterbalance to terror, from the ancient formulation by Aristotle for understanding tragedy in theatre. F O’T suggests that nihilists have only terror. But who are the nihilists? The humans who plough lorries through festive crowds? The humans who smile to see their share prices rising when they review the balance sheets of the arms manufacturers?
Could it be that there are no nihilists, simply hypocrites who manage to hold beliefs in moral ideas of ‘the good,’ often supported by religious beliefs, while engaging in economic, political and military acts, which others, on the receiving end of them, could not believe as ‘the good’?
F O’T writes of ‘our moral boundaries’ without clarifying who he means by ‘our’ and not making any attempt to pin down the compass and extent of such boundaries.Pity complicates things, as F O’T says, and that’s no doubt the case. And vital. The use of the words ‘we’, ‘us’ and ‘our’ further complicates matters. F O’T asserts that compassion is a boundless as fear.
However, with all this resting on ‘luck’ rather than human agency, how might the largest possible compass of ‘us’ experience this compassion in ‘our’ lives? Get lucky?
There is an opposite to terror – and it is stronger; Fintan O’Toole, The Irish Times, Dublin, 16.7.2016