If you close your eyes you can almost instantly imagine it. It’s the distant laughter of children, the rhythmic breaking of the waves and the soft hiss of the sea as it retreats across the sand; it’s the gentle rustle of the wind flicking the pages of your novel, it’s that energy sapping, cocooning, pervasive heat that allows you to let go of everything and simply float in its embrace. It’s knowing that when you open your eyes all you will see is an endless blue sky; until the first bullet rips through your carotid artery. The beach has become an icon for the protestant work ethic, it’s our secular temple, our sanctuary. It’s where the hypnotist asks you to go to deeply relax. A place of innocence, of childhood, of safety, a time when a family might lighten up enough to connect and enjoy each other’s company, its memories that will last a lifetime. It’s where we put down our armour for a few days and allow the world to pass on by. But is the Sousse Massacre the beginning of the end for the beach holiday? Has the age of the Kevlar bikini arrived? Is it all sun, sand and submachine guns? Is it slap on the Factor 15, slurp your ’99 and get slaughtered with an AK-47?
Sousse has been a particularly painful twist of the knife in the soft underbelly of the ‘Western’ psyche. Like the attack on the Methodist Church in Charleston just a few days before, it gains piquancy from striking us at our most exposed; even if it wasn’t wholly unexpected. The murder of African Americans has seen an exponential growth in the US recently and Tunisia is as vulnerable as any other Arab Spring nation to the rise of jihad. Less than two years ago, a suicide bomber blew himself up in a botched attack on a Sousse beach while security forces foiled another planned attack nearby.
Of course one way of staying safe is not to holiday in a war zone, but then since the terror, and consequent infamy, of ‘lone wolf ’ attacks has become de rigueur, where in the world isn’t one?
A map published by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) put almost every European country in possession of a beach, except Belgium and Holland, on somewhere between a ‘high’ to ‘underlying’ threat status. Conveniently for the English Tourist Board they forgot to note that the UK, is also on ‘high’. Even landlocked Switzerland had a threat level, albeit ‘low’, and who would want to attack them? Bitter chocolate addicts and Cuckoophobes? Maybe the shifty ‘associates’ of the notorious FIFA ‘Family’?
Nowadays our holiday choices have become as much about risk assessment as wanderlust.
Go to South America or the Far East and there’s a chance of becoming an unwitting drugs mule. South Africa is renowned for its violence, even when legless. West Africa is scarred by Ebola while East and North are on the fault line of the struggle for a caliphate. The East Coast of the US comprises a number of policemen with over sensitive triggers as well as some very hungry sharks and the West Coast is just waiting for a seismic shift, literally, before disappearing into the sea. Practically the only beaches where you might be safe enough to come armed with less than a semi-automatic, are in Australia. Just don’t get mistaken for an asylum seeker. It turns out that they send them off to a remote jungle ‘processing’ prison island where chances of survival are minimal.
Now where did they get that idea from? I know it all seems like the world is becoming a more dangerous place, but it’s worth bearing in mind that fear is the gift we receive for getting older. Maybe if I was still young enough to think a Jägerbomb was ‘sick’ rather than sickening, I could be looking at all this and thinking it all feels pretty exciting; after all, holidays are either a decadent one percenter indulgence or a brief downtime refresh for the working drone feeding the machines of the capitalist establishment; and those people who are fighting for their ideologies are, well, heroic.
As ISIL’s endless videos of atrocities plug straight into the Daily Mail’s drip feed of terror their need for recognition and attention, and ultimately recruitment, seems manifest. Our shrinking buzzfed world is a growing canvas for those who desperately want to make their voices heard, be taken seriously and get their point across. I know Bill Gates is a great philanthropist but sometimes I wonder if there’s a little guilt that drives him. I mean, if Microsoft Word taught the world anything, it’s that if you want to get a point across, you’ve got to use bullets.
As the population grows the point making and shouting will only get louder but does it spell the end of the beach holiday?
As Mossad realised when a whole party of their agents signed up for the Dubai Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh assassination; even the deadliest people in the world still want a little pampering at the seaside.
First appeared in Kensington, Chelsea and Westminster Today (August 2015)