It has become grimly familiar – the horrific news; the frantic media coverage (often the disturbing offspring of information and a ghoulish sense of entertainment). The flood of opinions, which are nothing but our desperate attempt to force reality to mirror the deep-seated frameworks through which we seek to understand the world; the delusion of certainties that is expressed in screams as the mere notion of stability starts to give in. We humans can get used to almost anything, and in what seems no time at all we’ve learnt to navigate the stories of victims, heroes and perpetrators, the maps made of the faces of strangers who’ve suddenly become part of our own story. In the case of the terrorists’ face, what has also become familiar is the sense of incomprehension; our need, on looking at their photograph, to understand how it is possible that behind those human eyes there can exist such violence, such limitless hatred, such disconnection of all bonds with fellow human beings.
I’m thinking, for instance, of the attack outside the Finsbury Park mosque in London this week. I do wonder where this man, whose name Darren Osborne has immediately seeped into the litany of new familiar names hanging from each atrocity, had been throughout the whole of the past couple of weeks, that he couldn’t feel the pall of grief fallen over London on the wake of the London Bridge attack, and just a few days later, the Grenfell Tower tragedy; that he could even contemplate to add some more, or how indeed did he manage not to notice the surge of, precisely, human bonding among people from all backgrounds, races, religions or no religion at all who’ve been weaving beauty out of horror through the sheer recognition of themselves in another. His actions were not only horrific, but oddly disjointed at such a moment – he had chosen indeed to remain in the margins of the human community.
But then again, you will say, how could he have possibly noticed all the above, buffered as he was by the alienation of his choice, and you’ll be right. The word “choice” though is a difficult one here, because he did choose to do what he did, and went through the motions quite deliberately, yet the pathetic picture emerging from the little we now know of him is that of what his relatives are claiming him to be: a man “with problems”. Mental health problems in particular.
Which adds to the difficulty, because then they went on to say that he’s therefore not a terrorist. We understand their pain, their shock, and they are saying one truth, that this man has mental health problems. But he also is a terrorist, and in fact there are quite a few similar stories behind many of the terrorists involved in the recent attacks in Britain and abroad which are part of our new familiar baggage of grim knowledge.
Osborne’s story reads, for instance, quite similar to that of Khalid Masood, who while burning in what must have been unbearable personal unhappiness one day this Spring decided to go and kill innocent people on Westminster Bridge.
In the utmost depths of truth, as I hinted in a recent blog post, it is perhaps unwise to hold onto words and labels such as “terrorist” or “mental health problems”, because ultimately what we are witnessing is the truly nameless essence of violence and pain that has always accompanied human history. However, we can’t dwell on the deepest truth only all the time. We must engage with our world in practical ways as well, join into the dialogue with our fellow citizens, strive at common understanding and universal justice, so if the radical Islamist fundamentalists killing people for the reasons they do are called terrorists, then Osborne is also, with not a shadow of a doubt, a terrorist.
All this is extremely trying for our sense of justice and ethics, for our need to understand. I’ve also said in a former post that these people do not really have a cause other than their own suffering, their own “lostness”. Both Islamic jihadists and the far right recruit many vulnerable people, and this doesn’t even happen in ways that we can recognize from the times when the term “terrorism” was coined to mean what we understand by it. The pattern now, in the cities of Europe at least, is often that of the lone, desolate broken soul picking a “cause”, whatever cause, to vent their rage, on occasion joined by a pal or two, so terrorism now is just another word for the alienation that makes a human being capable of expressing their rage through the willful harming of others.
The lack of a real cause is evident in the response of both radical Islamic jihadists and the far-right fundamentalists in the wake of the recent wave of terrorism. Their language of hatred, abuse and name-calling is indistinguishable from each other. It reflects a puerile inability to acknowledge the humanity of others, and the message is the same: there have been innocent people murdered, so let’s go and kill some more.
The impersonal nature of the recruiting is in itself a hallmark of that alienation. Troubled people can simply pick up the idea from internet, then follow through by imitation, just the way they might become fans of a new band in You Tube or copy the latest fashion in the high street, if they were a bit less troubled. One of the many horrifying aspects of this reality is that our terrorists behave not unlike the consumers we all are to a greater or lesser extent in a society weighed down by a glut of information. I suspect that to better understand this new form of terrorism we should, among the most obvious causes, reflect deeply also about the relationship between lack of empathy and the ever greater number of human lives being lived almost exclusively through a machine. There are plenty of studies being carried out about the damage caused to the parts of our brain responsible for our capacity for empathy because of ever-increasing time filtering reality through a screen. I believe that there is a chance that to at least some of the broken people who commit these atrocities, there is no difference between their actions and virtual reality.
If this sounds farfetched, just think for one second about how we tend to consume the news of the carnage. Some media even musicalize their newsreel videos, as if they were disaster movies, which I think the reader might agree is particularly obscene. There have been survivors filming themselves as they run away from danger, as if our mobile phones were our only claim to reality even in the most extreme situations. In our age, human pain has become a spectacle to a degree that the ancient Romans would have killed for…
Our new terrorists are just some of the actors.
If we really want to tackle in all seriousness the urgent question that is now seeking us out, we’ll have to admit, hard as it seems in the face of unspeakable acts committed out of hatred, that the people carrying them out are, simultaneously, worthy of compassion, and people who must face fully the consequences of their actions, and who must be stopped from going on spreading harm. How we’re going to marry these two seemingly irreconcilable tasks, I don’t know, but I do know that it is essential that we address both, if we want to come out of this mess in any way that resembles a humanity worth its name.
Our dilemma is no different from that of the man who, an innocent already nailed to the cross more than 2000 years ago, had the courage and the wit to ask his god for forgiveness for brutal people who knew not what they were doing. The profoundest ethical questions often involve extremity, now, always and forever. Even if we find ourselves incapable of comprehending the dimensions of actions such as those keeping us awake now, it is still within our reach to look at what is happening in our schools, in our prisons, in the underworld of the world-wide web, and at what kind of shadows are breeding in the many cracks opened by social inequality and the bloodied greed of international politics. The fact cannot have escaped us that a great number of the radicalized jihadists are people (usually men, usually young) whit only a vacuum where some notion of future should have been, or, in some countries, people who actually join the ranks of jihad simply as a means for subsistence, a pattern as old as mankind and brutally exemplified as well in other conflicts, such as that of the drug cartels in Mexico.
I lived in Finsbury Park for several years and only moved out recently. It breaks my heart that this week’s attack took place in what were my everyday surroundings. I visited the mosque on open days. People there are most kind and welcoming. The mosque is an essential part of the area’s community.
It is true that far too many of us do not know enough of each other; that far too many of us keep to our own communities conformed only by those who mirror us, and that we are all the poorer for it. However, and in the midst of the horror, grief and fear sown by a few wrecked individuals, something else is blossoming – something quite other from what the attackers have in mind. Support and solidarity, words mentioned very often these days, don’t really mean much until you’re there, standing in the places where the recent tragedies have happened. The messages of unequivocal love from strangers to strangers in the recognition of our common humanity are more than touching: they are an affirmation of life, with all the artificial constrains broken. These woeful months have gathered people who cry together in the streets, who embrace each other, who stand together in sonorous silence, who flood the places where blood was spilt with candles and flowers, who hold hands across the bridge were bodies lay, and who also laugh and share life together. We’ve had people from all religions and none expressing this instinctive recognition, the exact opposite of the alienation of hatred; the people, for instance, who gave flowers to the Muslims going to prayer outside the Finsbury Park mosque. In return, yesterday (Friday the 23rd of June) the mosque invited everybody to their Solidarity Street Iftar. Despite the sadness for what has happened, it was a celebration of unity, a most generous act of sharing (the sadness, the determination to stand united, the flowers, plus quite delicious food!), and therefore joyful.
Last week I was volunteering to sort out donations for the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire. I am bad at calculating crowds but it seemed to me that this was a spontaneous team of probably hundreds of people working together. Because the impromptu relief hub was just outside the Al Manaar Muslim Cultural Heritage Centre, and because so many of those affected by the fire were Muslims, though there were volunteers from all walks of life and races, most of them were Muslim, and most of them quite young.
It is difficult to put into words the mixed emotions: the horror at what had happened, the bottomless sadness, the fury, and yet the sense of lightness, even joy of being working together, so many, quite different among us, and in particular with so many extraordinarily lively, efficient and kind youths who at the moment, because of their religion, are not only under the threat, like every single one of us, of what we call, for want of a better term, radical Islamic terrorism, but on top of that, under the threat of Islamophobia. You need courage to face such threats with such lightness and grace as the people I briefly worked with last week, and I feel very grateful for having had the chance to do so.
What has been happening in Britain in these which are usually the most glorious months of the year, yet so bleak in 2017, is so much, so horrid and with so many layers of complexity that it may well do our heads in if we’re not careful. It is, for instance, bewildering that negligence and indifference towards the lives of others, expressed through probable corruption and the harassing of residents who raised the alarm about a building’s safety issues, have taken more lives than four terrorist attacks in a row put together – and that in what is reportedly the richest borough in this country.
The people responsible for that negligence and indifference suffer too from the alienation that affects the terrorists, even if they don’t notice their own numbness. The negation of the other is, beyond all labels, the real evil.
In the midst of so much gloom, our society is changing. Proof of that are not only the results of the recent elections. Quite independent of our political inclinations, the spontaneous outpour of solidarity and togetherness that the recent tragedies have brought about is the most powerful voice of change, a voice that pleads to be listened to no matter how ominous the threats become.
True, there has been an enormous raise of attacks inspired by Islamophobia after the Manchester and Westminster and London Bridge attacks; there have been isolated incidents of anger after the Grenfell Tower fire getting out of hand, with an innocent man (a volunteer in fact in the effort to help the victims) reportedly beaten up, and the Islamic jihadists are exploiting every single event to call for more carnage. But the vast majority of people keep on responding to the atrocities with compassion, solidarity, courage, togetherness, generosity and inexhaustible kindness.
That the Finsbury Park mosque’s imam, Mohammed Mahmoud, managed to stop an angry mob from hurting Darren Osborne (things could have become quite more horrible otherwise); that paramedics tried to save Khalid Masood’s life with the same care that they put in trying to save the lives of his victims after the Westminster Bridge attack, are actions perhaps not really heroic, as we are calling them, but something much more transcendent: our humanity taking hold of ordinary people thrown into the worst circumstances. Every single member of our emergency services involved in rescuing and helping others, in saving lives and bringing comfort throughout the recent atrocities deserve all our praise, admiration and gratefulness precisely because they bear testimony to that humanity. Just think of those who are even now trying to rescue the bodies of victims in the Grenfell Tower. Of the ambulance crews, who have seen what they have seen. Of the firemen and women and police officers risking their lives at the several scenes. Of the doctors and nurses tending victims with injuries that you only expect to see in wartime.
All this is not only laudable. It is not only a reason for hope. It is hope itself, embodied. And that’s the only one we have: ourselves, our hearts.
This is why I fail to comprehend what was going through the mind of those who decided to call last Wednesday’s confused and confusing demonstration for justice for the victims of Grenfell Tower “A Day of Rage”, just two days after rage led a man to mow down innocent civilians with a rented van. It’s hard to think of something more insensitive, more tactless, and it’s no wonder that many of the survivors of the fire were upset.
Sure, there are absolutely legitimate reasons for anger, for rage. But rage as a cause is just more fire, blindly burning whatever crosses its path. I can’t doubt that many of the terrorists responsible for the atrocities taking place all over the world have had enough personal, legitimate causes for feeling rage. What we know of the stories of some reveals evident wells of suffering. And yet, see what happens when they hold onto their rage alone. After the dazzling, yet quite simple beauty of the innumerable acts and signs of solidarity from ordinary citizens in the wake of the recent tragedies (and all of us are certainly furious about what happened in the Grenfell Tower), and with all the grieving taking place right now, couldn’t they really think of a more apt name for their demonstration?
I read reports of the demonstration from all sorts of press, looking for a balanced perspective. I saw some videos. Sure, there were many people there sincerely voicing their legitimate anger and pain. There were also many others hijacking the tragedy to fuel their own personal, little ideologies, thus negating the humanity of those they’re supposedly demonstrating for. That is despicable, and also boring: it happens all the time, everywhere. So let’s move on. When things get as serious as they are now, to remain anchored in adolescence isn’t helpful. Anger certainly stirred a great deal of the way people voted in the past general election: anger calling for hope, not for self-immolation in the name of rage.
What we have to honour is visible all around us: the hundreds of people coordinating help for the victims of the fire; the messages of solidarity, the donations, the aid appeals for the victims of the five greatest tragedies in the UK this year coming from all over the country; the floods of flowers; the togetherness of most of us, of all ages and races and classes, religions and nationalities; the kindness that has flourished among many in daily life in our busy streets; our unity in the face of our vulnerability, these most stark reminders of our mortality, for surely many of us are afraid, and often plunging into the question, akin to despair, “How can we do these things to one another?”. There is far more courage in accepting that vulnerability and being determined nevertheless to stand together, than in using the language of conflagration.
Perhaps this blog spot is rambling. I have no answers at all, I suspect none of us really does. But it seems to me most urgent to concentrate on the miracle of unity that is making us really care for each other, know each other. Again paraphrasing William Blake, we become what we behold. Whatever the future brings, however grim, the love and compassion we show to each other will keep on being the flowers that can never wither.
[If you came here looking for information on the problems surrounding Blake’s Cottage please go to https://blakecottage.com/blog/ . My testimony is now complete in the “My Testimony” section.]