A French soldier patrols a beach in Nice, France. PAimages/Francois Mori. All rights reserved.
Once again there will be an influx of notes of sorrow, by now customary calls for unity in face of the terror gripping our cities, our streets: the spaces of our public, convivial existence.
But there is already something not-quite-right about the prime sentiment that grips some of us this morning as we skim through the endless videos of Nice’s howling urban beach-front stampede. The feeling that the city’s screaming agony is on the verge of becoming as commonplace as the street lights and the wide avenues on which it unfolds: an inseparable, however unwelcome, by-product of urban life.
One commonplace feature replacing another: for all their diversity in tactics the recent string of attacks in France all locked on one very specific target, urban density.
Bataclan, Stade de France, the Nice Promenade: all spaces of public gathering, of the get-together that has made life in our cities stimulating and even enjoyable in face of and despite the adversity that plays out in the international political arena. Everyday spaces where we can come meet and shelter one another underneath the dark clouds looming over a Europe that is becoming more reactionary and inward by the day.
Back in November I reflected on November’s attacks in Paris fearing for a three-fold attack on the urban spirit across European soil: EU-wide introversion, the deployment of the army in urban terrain, and our own – largely voluntary – abstaining from the joy of the unexpected that comes with letting go of control, and opening up to the possibility of encounter.
What is so chilling about Nice is that it solidifies this trajectory of the great transformation of our public spaces into non-places of thoroughfare: places where density is under attack and has to be avoided at all costs, places where safe passage becomes the ultimate goal against meeting places. A break-up of the urban and its reconstitution in secluded fragments between which one must hop to and fro.
In this, those despising and leading western hegemony form the most unholy of alliances: an anti-urban carnage that begins with western army carnage in far-away cities, continues with trucks ramming through the crowds and ends at the tip of the rifle of the French soldier casually strolling through the city.
In-between the two, we catch ourselves always seeking for the path of the least encounter, urban space becoming a problem to be avoided, a death trap to be traversed as quickly as possible.
Nice’s promenade follows on a long string of attacks against the dense and the banal: against the overlooked ordinary that comprises our daily existence. Let it go without a struggle, and we risk entering a new banality of seclusion, compartmentalisation and avoidance: a daily reality where khaki patrols will blend seamlessly into the urban fabric, little more than a slightly odd backdrop to our endless traversal of, away from and against the city.