It was just before dawn on the morning of July 15, and I was trying to explain to my six-year-old daughter why – instead of a planned day at the park – I was suddenly heading to the airport to catch a flight to a city called Nice.
“A bad man hurt a lot of people in France,” was the best explanation I could come up with. As I watched her turn the news over in her head, disappointment spreading on her face, I realized it was a sentence I’d uttered three times in 18 months.
Barely 36 hours later, I called her from a sun-baked plaza in the historic old city of Nice. That day in the park would have to be postponed again. Some men with guns had tried to take over the government in Turkey. Instead of coming home, Daddy was flying somewhere else.
More bad men, more people hurt.
After we hung up, I contemplated how little sense any of this must make to her.
She’s not alone. All of us – including and especially the political and economic elites who have long stood atop this suddenly wobbly pyramid – have been left reeling by events.
A “period of instability” is upon us, historian Margaret MacMillan told me this week, one that has parallels to the pre-war periods of the 20th century that she’s written acclaimed books about.
Future historians are likely to judge today’s leaders on whether they seek to calm – or simply take advantage of – the choppy waters that we’re in.
Rarely, it seems, has the world spun so rapidly, have events felt so out of control.
The headlines blur into one another, feeding the sense of a world in chaos. The war in Syria bleeds into the refugee crisis. The refugees’ march into Europe boosts politicians on the nationalist right. The truck attack in France is followed by the shooting of police in Louisiana. Then it’s a man with an axe on a train in Germany. On Friday, it was a shooting at a mall in Munich. “Brexit” in the United Kingdom is knocked from the top of the news by a putsch attempt in Turkey.
They seem like disconnected events. But what links the British who voted to quit the European Union with the Turks who gathered in a public square on Wednesday to cheer the imposition of a state of emergency is their anger at how the system has worked until now.
Brexit was won in the small cities and towns of England, places where globalization has meant de-industrialization, the closing of factories and the transfer of work to cheaper locales overseas. The phenomenon was exacerbated by an influx of job-seekers from Eastern Europe who made competition for remaining jobs even stiffer.
Leave voters didn’t change their minds when the elites told them Brexit would batter housing prices, or the stock market. To many, the idea that the elites, people who owned property and shares, would take a turn suffering sounded just about right.
In Turkey, the supporters of the ruling Justice and Development (or AK) Party hail from – broadly speaking – the poor, conservative, and deeply devout half of Turkey. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may stand today accused of repression and massive corruption, but his followers remember his humble upbringing as the kid who sold lemonade and buns on the streets of Istanbul to help his family make ends meet.
AK Party loyalists recall how he was removed as the mayor of Istanbul in 1998 and jailed for reciting a poem that included the lines “the mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers.” Mr. Erdogan is the head of their Islamist revolution against the affluent secularists.
Those cheering Brexit in the U.K., and welcoming a state of emergency in Turkey, were the ships that were supposed to be lifted by the rising tide of globalization, a promise that proved cruelly incorrect. They are now finding satisfaction in defeating their ruling classes, the people who believed those countries, and the world, were theirs to rule.
It’s the same live wire that connects an Islamic State-inspired attack in Europe to a racially motivated shooting rampage in the U.S. The perpetrators are – almost always – those who felt they have very little left to lose in their lives. The cause they choose is almost a footnote to their act of anarchy.
Hours before the chaos broke out in Nice, I was sitting in a lecture hall at the London School of Economics, listening to Canada’s International Trade Minster Chrystia Freeland talk about Brexit, and the isolationist mood spreading around the world.
“This is a complex, fraught moment,” she understated. She said she saw “deglobalization” taking place all around the planet. “We are living in a time when in many countries in the Western industrialized world, maybe most countries in the Western industrialized world, there is a tremendous popular backlash against international trade, against immigration, against what you might call open society.”
Our societies are fracturing into tribes. In the U.K., it’s Leavers versus Remainers. In Turkey, the failed coup has cleaved society into Erdoganites and Gulenists (after the movement accused of supporting the failed putsch). Almost everywhere, lines are being drawn between immigrants and the native-born. Black and white. Us and them.
And the tribes are turning on one another.
As we sped towards the airport in Nice, my taxi driver told me how it all looked from where he sat.
France, he began, needed to close its doors to immigrants. The country’s Muslims, he said, should be deported to Devil’s Island – the Napoleon III-era penal colony off the coast of South America – until authorities could figure out which ones were safe and which ones were dangerous.
I stared out the window, biting my lip. Such talk was madness. But madness is spreading these days. My taxi driver’s rhetoric wasn’t too far off from Donald Trump’s talk of banning all Muslims from travelling to the United States until authorities can “figure out what is going on.” In the wake of the Bastille Day attack in Nice, French far-right leader Marine Le Pen – who leads most opinion polls ahead of presidential elections next year – said it was time for the country to declare “war against the scourge of Islamist fundamentalism.”
“Before, many people hesitated to vote for Madame Le Pen. Now, after this, I find myself agreeing with her,” the driver told me.
He was angry. All of Nice was. The grief in the city was qualitatively different from the reaction in Paris after the shooting and bomb attacks that targeted restaurants, bars and a sports stadium last November, and the Charlie Hebdo newspaper office and a kosher deli 10 months before that.
Back then, there was a determination not to let the horrific assaults divide the country. France’s founding principles of liberté, égalité, fraternité were not to be shaken by the acts of a few terrorists. Parisians rallied on Place de la République after each attack, though more nervously the second time, to show their solidarity as a society.
Raw fury overwhelmed such gestures in Nice. Mourners booed Prime Minister Manuel Valls when he came to lay a wreath on Promenade des Anglais, the seafront boulevard where Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, a Tunisian immigrant, had driven his rented 19-tonne truck into the crowds of children, women and men watching the Bastille Day fireworks.
“This was worse than bullets,” 55-year-old Michelle Prost told me, with tears streaming down her face as she laid flowers on the promenade the day after the attacks. “Driving a vehicle over people, symbolically it means ‘I will crush you.’”
The anger is just as raw on the streets of Istanbul. When I arrive on Sunday night, Taksim Square – the heart of the city’s European half – is filled with tens of thousands of flag-waving supporters of Mr. Erdogan. Having faced down the coup attempt 36 hours earlier, the mood swings between celebratory and furious.
Upbeat music plays from atop a bus parked in the middle of the square, and the people on the square smile and dance. But when the loudspeakers fall silent, the crowd takes matters in a very different direction.
Chants of “I will sacrifice my life for the motherland” are followed by calls for other people’s blood. “We want executions!” comes the public cry.
The rage is understandable. At least 270 people (including 24 putschists) were killed in the furious fighting that caused the coup’s collapse. Horrifying videos posted online show tanks driving over people and cars on the streets of Istanbul during the dark hours of July 15 and 16. The country’s parliament in Ankara was bombed from the air.
As soon as it was clear that he had survived the challenge to his rule, Mr. Erdogan asked his supporters to stay in the streets. It soon became clear why. They were to showcase his support level as he launched a shockingly rapid purge of his enemies.
By the end of the week, some 9,000 soldiers and police – including more than 100 generals – were in jail on suspicion of taking part in the coup plot.
Tens of thousands of others – judges, prosecutors, provincial governors, teachers, university deans, journalists, religious instructors, ordinary civil servants – were out of their jobs because of suspected ties to Fethullah Gulen, the U.S.-based imam Mr. Erdogan believes inspired the putsch attempt. All civil servants and academics were banned from going abroad, lest any of Mr. Gulen’s supporters try to flee.
The return of the death penalty – and its use against those convicted of taking part on the plot – now seems inevitable.
Criticism of the government dropped to a whisper. One analyst I interviewed asked me to put down my notebook – and turn off my mobile phone – before he would answer a question about whether the purges were going too far. Another critic, out of the country when the coup attempt happened, told me that he had decided to postpone his return to Turkey until he could see where the “escalating frenzy” was going.
And each night, Mr. Erdogan’s supporters came back into Taksim Square to cheer him on as he built what he called in speeches “New Turkey.” They stayed in the square and kept cheering even as Mr. Erdogan announced a three-month state of emergency. AK Party supporters know they’re not the ones who need to fear a president who can make laws by decree.
But Mr. Erdogan and the AK Party represent just one of Turkey’s warring tribes.
Walking across Taksim Square in the afternoon – which is relatively empty during the day, before filling with AK Party supporters each night – I paused to chat with Haydar Uyumaz, a 53-year-old who has made a living selling Turkish flags in an array of sizes. Soccer matches and election time are the best for business, he told me, chuckling to add “and coups.” He said he’d never sold as many flags in such a short period as the 200 he’d sold over the previous 48 hours.
Our conversation was interrupted by a young Kurdish man, who suggested Mr. Uyumaz would have a hard time selling flags in Turkey’s largely Kurdish southeast. More than 1,200 people have been killed, and 350,000 others driven from their homes, since the conflict between the Turkish army and the separatist PKK re-erupted last summer after several years of relative peace.
“If this is the New Turkey that President Erdogan is talking about, we are going backwards,” said Abdullah Demir, a 27-year-old from the region of Mardin, which has seen some of the heaviest fighting. As he spoke, a young man wearing one Turkish flag as a bandana and another as a cape approached and glowered at Mr. Demir. But Mr. Demir kept talking. “Three years ago, Turks and Kurds were friendly to each other in Istanbul. But every year, we feel less and less like brothers.”
Across the border from that war, of course, is the other one. The swirling storm that has seen Turkey’s neighbours Syria and Iraq fracture along ethnic and sectarian lines. Sunnis versus Shias. Arabs versus Kurds. And the so-called Islamic State against everyone. (IS has claimed that both Mr. Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, the Nice attacker, and Muhammad Riyad, the Afghan asylum-seeker who injured five people with an axe on a German train, were its “soldiers.”)
Turkey has been waist-deep in Syria’s civil war since its outbreak in 2011. The AK Party has informal ties to the Muslim Brotherhood movement that had then just toppled governments in Tunisia and Egypt. Syria looked to be next, and Mr. Erdogan – who looked poised to emerge with Ottomanesque clout in the region – was quick to back the Sunni-dominated uprising against the Alawite-dominated regime of Bashar al-Assad.
THAER MOHAMMED/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
From the outset of the conflict in Syria, Turkey supported the army defectors who became the Free Syrian Army. Fatefully, Ankara also allowed others opposed to the Assad regime – including the radical jihadists who became IS – to use Turkish soil as something of a rear base.
Now Turkey is among the countries at war with IS. NATO uses Turkey’s Incirlik airbase to launch air strikes against the self-declared caliphate, and IS has hit back with a string of suicide bombings around the country – including last month’s attack on Istanbul’s main airport – that have left more than 200 people dead.
Turkey is now hosting a staggering 2.7 million refugees from Syria’s war. There are fears that the chaos could spill across the border in other ways as well.
If this is the New Turkey that President Erdogan is talking about, we are going backwards.
Abdullah Demir, a 27-year-old from the region of Mardin
At the other end of Taksim Square from where Mr. Uyumaz was selling his flags, I spotted two teenage sisters glowering with anger at the Ataturk Cultural Centre, which sits at the eastern end of the plaza. The building is named after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, who remains an icon among this country’s secular citizens.
This week the cultural centre bore the scars of the attempted coup. Many of the windows facing Taksim Square were shattered by sonic booms as low-flying fighter jets buzzed over the centre of Istanbul.
In the aftermath, two large portraits of Mr. Erdogan were hung from its facade.
“No, no, never. It should be Ataturk hanging from there,” said one of the sisters, 18-year-old Selcan Eraslan. She and her sister were Alevis, a sect of Shia Islam, and worried that Turkey’s official secularism was about to crumble.
Ms. Eraslan, who said she opposed the coup attempt, lives in the Gazi neighbourhood of Istanbul, where police have had to break up violent clashes this week between AK Party supporters and Alevi residents.
“There will be an ethnic fight between the Sunnis and the Alevis,” she said, staring at Mr. Erdogan’s posters on the Ataturk Cultural Centre. “Civil war is coming, for sure.”
JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
What was most shocking about the recent spate of headline-seizing events – and deeply unsettling when you consider them as a chain – was how no one seemed to have seen any of it coming.
The pollsters and pundits predicted Britain would vote, by a comfortable margin, to remain part of the EU. The attack in Nice succeeded in part because many French police were given the Bastille Day holiday off after being on high alert through the country’s month-long hosting of the European soccer championships. Turkey’s intelligence services only detected something might be amiss a few hours before tanks starting moving towards Istanbul’s bridges and airports.
And six months ago, nobody thought Donald Trump stood a chance of becoming president of the United States.
My week alone took me from one country, France, that would extend its state of emergency – imposed after the November attacks in Paris – while I was in Nice, to another, Turkey, that would declare post-coup state of emergency and suspend some civil liberties while I was in Istanbul.
“We’ve had a number of shocks,” said Prof. MacMillan, the warden of St. Anthony’s College at Oxford University. “Some of it is coincidence, but I think it’s making everyone rather jittery, thinking is everything coming unstuck.”
Future historians, she said, may look at the “period of instability” as beginning with the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S., and the subsequent launching of the global “war on terror,” including the fateful U.S.-British decision to invade Iraq. The accelerant, Prof. MacMillan, said was the 2008 financial crisis.
“The impact of 2008 – the economies may have recovered more or less, the banking system may have recovered, more or less, but I think it really shook people’s faith in those who were running the economy. I think that’s fed into this feeling that people aren’t being listened to. It’s a dangerous sort of mood.”
The economic dislocation also makes it easier for groups like IS to convert people to their brand of hatred. Attacks like those carried out by Mr. Lahouaiej-Bouhlel and Mr. Riyad in turn feed the popular anger that is lifting the Trumps and Le Pens. It’s time to build more walls, to make it hard again to cross borders. It’s a vicious cycle.
Radicals thrive when governments can no longer meet the standard-of-living expectations of their citizens, Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Istanbul-based Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, told me.
“The world seems to have reached a critical point in terms of creating a large enough pool of ‘losers’ – those who lost out on globalization, who lost out on technology, who lost out on free trade – to create the undercurrents of this instability.”
Meanwhile, the U.S., which Mr. Ulgen said lost much of its global authority during the twin disasters of the Iraq invasion and the 2008 financial crisis, is no longer willing or able to play the role of global policeman. From afar – as street violence escalates and Mr. Trump is crowned the Republic Party’s candidate for the White House – American-style capitalism and democracy no longer looks like a model worth pursuing.
In other words, the old world order has come unglued. Globalization led and regulated by the U.S. is now considered a failure. People around the world are seeking the safety of their tribes.
“In troubled times, there’s a tendency to turn inwards and say ‘at least we understand our own people.’ There’s also a tendency, which is very unfortunate, to demonize others for whatever reason. It happened in Germany in the late 1920s and 1930s, and it happened in other times in other places,” said Prof. MacMillan, whose most recent book is The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914.
History rhymes, rather than repeats, as Mark Twain reputedly said. We’re not yet on any irreversible course towards something worse. But we could end up there fast.
“Things go wrong and things can go wrong very quickly, we know that. It took Europe five weeks in the summer of 1914 to go from a fairly stable peace to all-out war,” Prof. MacMillan continued. “If things go wrong, we’ll look back and say this was a time that led to greater instability.”
My daughter, I realized at the end of a long and worrying week, used to always ask “Why?” when I told her that that something crazy had happened, and that I had to get on a plane.+
Not this time. She was sad to hear that France, a country she loves to visit, had been attacked again. She found it strange that some soldiers in Turkey, where her aunt and uncle used to work, thought they should take over the government.
But she didn’t ask why either event had occurred.
Perhaps, like the rest of us, she’s gotten used to a world spinning dangerously out of control.