The Dangers of Saccharine

I flew to Paris the day Brussels was bombed. It was a fine day—weather-wise—and as I looked down with a clear view of that vast and wealthy city, its millions of citizens going about their business as if nothing had happened, I thought how stupid it was of a handful of miserable ferret-faced terrorists, the living incarnation of Lombroso’s theories, to imagine that they could bring about the downfall of such an imposing edifice by their putrid, self-important acts. And yet…only the other day I was reading, in a book by Professor Henri Pirenne (a Belgian, by the way), that the barbarians made up only 5% of the population of the Roman Empire at the moment of its supposed collapse.

Historical analogies are not exact, of course (otherwise, they wouldn’t be analogies), and I don’t think we’re anywhere near collapse—more like decomposition, really. I see the epidemic of tattooing and other forms of self-mutilation in that light, a population desperate to make its mark but capable only of marking itself.

Naturally, I read a lot of articles about the bombings in Brussels, even though I knew they would be about as illuminating as the economic commentary of the Financial Times, and only slightly more interesting. It’s an addiction, reading newspaper commentary, and I don’t really know why I do it except that I’ve always done it and probably always will—if, that is, newspapers outlive me. Here, for example, is a quotation from an article in Le Monde two days after the events:

Our priorities are to make manifest our unwavering support of Belgium and to remain lucid in this long-term fight. Our weapon? To change our mental posture at last in the anti-terrorist struggle, and to think differently…

So now you know. I bet they’re terrified down in Molenbeek: Henceforth the infidels are going to think differently. From now on they’re going to be lucid. If we don’t look out, they’ll withdraw our citizenship from us after we’ve blown ourselves up—like they almost did in France before the parliamentary opposition to the bill.

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