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The common enemy of our common enemy

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Paris massacre: Bermuda, despite its geographical position, can never be immune to the horrors of terrorist attacks like the one in Paris. (Graphic by Daryl Cagle)

“No man is an island entire of itself; every man

is a piece of the continent, a part of the main ...”

— John Donne

RG: In our Opinion

Two Bermudians were among the casualties when the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Centre were destroyed by terrorists using commercial passenger jets as improvised missiles on 9/11.

A Bermudian was caught up in the carnage in Kenya in 2013 when jihadists stormed a mall in the Nairobi suburbs and indiscriminately slaughtered dozens of shoppers.

And last Friday, a Bermudian working in Paris found herself trapped in a restaurant as militants brandishing Kalashnikov assault rifles rampaged through the French capital, briefly transforming the City of Lights into a high-intensity combat zone.

Terrorism is increasingly ubiquitous in the modern world. Not only are no countries off limits to terror, no people — including Bermudians — are immune to the ever-present threat.

So far this month there have been at least 20 major terrorist incidents around the world. From Cameroon to the West Bank town of Kfar Tapuach, from Beirut to Baghdad, an ocean of innocent blood has been shed in November and the month is barely half over.

Throughout 2015, there have been dozens of such attacks.

Demonstrating an energy and ruthlessness that is still difficult for us to fully comprehend, no matter how often we read reports of their promiscuous massacres, the architects of these atrocities have been nothing if not remorseless in attempting to achieve their primary objective.

The goal of terrorism, after all, is to terrorise a general population. And from Nigeria to Kenya, from Turkey to Iraq, from the remote vastness of Egypt’s Sinai peninsula to the crowded boulevards of Paris, the history of 2015 has been punctuated by acts of almost unimaginable violence aimed at so-called “soft targets” — namely, civilians and unprotected civic, economic and cultural institutions.

Too often the assassins have been religious extremists, those claiming to have God on their side and who, as Mark Twain remarked more than a century ago, have succeeded only in making “a graveyard of the globe ... (while trying) to smooth their brother’s path to happiness and heaven”.

Protected by its ocean moat, Bermuda has perhaps too often in the past manifested a sense of serene complacency about events taking place in the world around us. But matters from without are intruding upon our traditional solitude on an increasingly regular basis, underscoring that we are not as remote from international events as some of us would still like to think.

We never actually have been.

For the reality is every man’s death does serve to diminish us all. And no country, community or individual can ever find peace or security by avoiding involvement in the life of the world around them.

So it follows that every outrage, every act of indiscriminate violence, wherever it occurs, should be the common concern of humankind, just as the perpetrators should be recognised as our common enemy and be dealt with accordingly.

But as the open-ended War on Terror has proved, bombs and bullets are only of limited utility when it comes to defeating this foe. We can cripple their military capacity and command and logistical structures, but not the murderous philosophy that animates them.

Ultimately, the common enemy of our common enemy is tolerance: tolerance informed by empathy and a recognition of the mutuality of mankind.

The present generation of Bermudians, more international in scope and orientation than those who came before, possess this quality to a far greater degree than their elders. They are as likely to concern themselves with the person on the other side of the world as they are with the person next door.

And they have complained the loudest about the supposedly selective morality demonstrated by Bermuda’s official reaction to the Paris attacks.

Some claim an unpalatable double standard is at play, given the entirely more muted response to the previous day’s double suicide bombing in Beirut and the non-existent acknowledgments of similar large-scale tragedies in Kenya, Nigeria, Tunisia and throughout the Middle East this year.

At best, these critics say, the decision to lower flags at Bermuda Government buildings to half-mast to honour victims of the Paris attacks shows a lack of empathy for other casualties of terror; at worst, it smacks of cultural chauvinism or even outright racism.

Their criticisms have, of course, been met by any number of angry rejoinders from older Bermudians. They argue our young people are swimming upstream against an indisputable reality: that Bermudians are likely to be more familiar with Paris — and see that city as more pertinent to their lives — than any number of other communities that have experienced similar carnage.

Unfortunately, we are living in an era when issues all too often — and too quickly — become polarised, when uncompromising positions are staked out at either end of the ideological spectrum.

The middle ground is too often ignored or simply trampled by those who hold to opinions that are impervious to reasoned argument or, sometimes, objective facts.

Yet the middle ground is where much of life is lived. It is where realism, pragmatism and both our common values and common sense are most often found and where our discussions should actually centre. Dogmatic certainty, after all, is at the root of the mentality we are actually trying to defang and declaw in a War on Terror that is really a struggle against extremist ideologies.

We can hardly represent ourselves and our society as exemplars of tolerance if we demonstrate a crude and unthinking intolerance of one another.

The passion — and compassion — of our young is admirable. But it occasionally needs to be tempered by the recognition that there will always be inconsistencies in our national morality caused less by malice or thoughtless insensitivity than by simple generational and cultural influences.

Similarly, older Bermudians, who do sometimes appear to be both strangely unmoved and uninterested in events that fall outside their immediate purviews, need to recognise that while age doesn’t always confer unassailable wisdom, it should provide an informed perspective.

And an informed perspective, by definition, requires a steady inflow of information about people and places they might have once turned a casually blind eye to.

Lowering the flags at government buildings was an act of official symbolism — and such symbolism is always open to interpretation, for it engages both our minds and our consciences.

It should therefore probably best be seen — and respected — as a tribute to all victims of terror, hate and fanaticism around the world, a small gesture on the part of Bermuda, which demonstrates we are aware that the death of every man, everywhere, does indeed diminish us all.

Carnage in Kenya: how The Royal Gazette reported Bermudian Joanne Ball-Burgess’s near escape from the shopping mall attack by jihadists in Nairobi in 2013