Being French in a country under attack: After Nice, anyone can be targeted

My country is under relentless attack.

But like all else, even terror strikes become a matter of habit. You expect the attack to come someday and the surprise diminishes, as the weeks pass.

Still, it cannot be denied that terror renders the imagination overwrought and uncontrolled in an unexpected way. It makes you enter the brain of the terrorist and try to get under the skin of the terrorist. And when you find nothing there, it scares you.  Nobody really knows him and much like entering a locked empty room, entering his space leaves you even more puzzled. That is, till details trickle out gradually to fill that empty chamber.

At noon on Bastille Day (14 July) this year and as a creature of habit, I listened to the news bulletin and found it strangely listless. The annual military parade down the Champs Elysees had ended, President François Hollande had handed out some medals as usual and the crowds had dispersed safely. Since my boyhood, France's Independence Day had always proceeded like this.

 Being French in a country under attack: After Nice, anyone can be targeted

File image of the truck that killed over 80 people in Nice last week. AP

But a terrorist would miss no such special opportunity to strike, so I was surprised when the news reported no such attack. Switching off, I decided to let the world continue to spin without straining to keep my ear on the ground anymore.

Meanwhile, the butcher in Nice was waiting for evening to climb into his possessed lorry, drive two kilometres at full speed and crush crowds of families out to enjoy the annual firework display.

It was the first thing on the news the next morning, of course. But strangely, I could not visualise the nightmare from the point of view of the victims, but from the driver's seat of that lorry instead.

How would I feel, I wondered, to hear more than a hundred hard knocks bang against my lorry?
The sickening thud, each time I knocked a body down?
How would I be steering?
Would I scream with elation each time?
Or would I soon start getting bored?
So bored, that relief would set in to spot policemen aiming their guns at me?

The first police investigation didn’t help much in answering my questions. A neighbour claimed the murderer was not involved with any terrorist group but suffering from depression and had even stopped going to the mosque.

"He was drinking, womanising and taking salsa lessons," I was told.

I tried to imagine how a depressed man could rent a heavy truck, park it, wait for the right time and the thickest crowds, and throughout all this, not change his mind at all. I had heard about depression, but somehow, this didn't tally.

And salsa? Why salsa? I recalled my own lessons, a long time ago. Could there have been someone like that among us?

After switching off the radio, I took the metro to work, melting into the crowds as on any other morning. I didn't feel particularly afraid or panicky. It was just another working day — my routine is a daily habit.  At work, I found my colleagues discussing office matters. This time and unlike the earlier strikes in Paris — Charlie Hebdo, Bataclan etc — there was no heated discussion on terrorism.

But one thing remained: My search for a rational explanation, to understand the politics of it, the societal frustration behind the mass murders, and the cultural and civilisational shock that many said is what had turned ordinary people into ruthless terrorists.

Who was this maniac at the wheel of the truck in Nice last week? He has now become like a movie character one is compelled to live with, a novel one has been forced to read which one cannot understand as long as its protagonist remains an enigma. Who was this man, hell-bent on unleashing such blinding terror and bloodshed into our lives?

My thoughts switched to Leiser, a character in John Le Carré's 1965 novel, The Looking Glass War, his worst-selling, which, according to the author, had been his most realistic one yet on British intelligence. I had read it just months ago.

People mourn the Nice attack. AP

People pay tribute to the victims of the Nice attack. AP

Leiser is a Pole who runs a garage in London. He dreams of becoming a pucca Englishman, though something in his mind tells him he will never succeed. He chases women, drinks and tries hard to dress and behave like the archetypal Englishman — an image he holds high in his esteem. One day, a man from the British Secret Service recruits him for a mission behind the Iron Curtain: In Soviet-occupied East Germany.

Suddenly,  the Pole has to leave everything behind — his life, his garage, his mistress, his regular pub — to undergo drills before the mission. He cuts off all contacts, stops chasing skirts and finds himself deeply happy. He fails to see that he is being used cold-bloodedly as a mere tool. Instead, he is convinced that he now has real friends: The officers and instructors training him. At last, his life seems to have purpose and meaning.

He enters Germany alone and kills, happy in the belief that he has come the full circle: An Englishman doing it all only for his English friends. He dies with that belief.

Was making friends the Nice terrorist’s problem, till he finally made some dangerous ones? It could be one explanation, one humane aspect of the diabolical salsa dancer that partly fill the empty room, that makes the character more plausible, that stills the reader's imagination and allows her to put down the book. That's the good thing about literature. It's always there to lend a helping hand when reality becomes too tough to comprehend.

What's life like in France, a week after the Nice massacre? As it always was. There are people on the streets, in cafés, at work.

But there is an undeniable tension in the air, hanging like an thick, invisible cloak and one alien to most Parisians inclined to think like me. After the attack on the office of Charlie Hebdo, we knew that the journalists had been targeted for their magazine's editorial content.

But now we know.

You need not be a journalist. Anyone can be targeted. Precisely for being anyone. That is the sickening difference.

The author is a Paris-based writer and former banker who served in Pakistan and Bangladesh

Updated Date: Jul 19, 2016 13:10:55 IST