This hasn’t been a good week for the world. Mother Nature batters Oklahoma and takes 9 children with her. There have probably been countless tragedies and murders in the third world that we are not exposed to. And yesterday a member of the British armed forces was shot, stabbed, and supposedly beheaded in a horrific attack in south east London. I sighed heavily when I read the news. I sighed not just because of the revulsion at this despicable act, but because I know a can of worms has been opened. Vengeance will take precedence, racist attitudes will emerge from those you least expect, and ignorance will spread like wildfire.
Social media is a wonderful thing. We discover news now as it is happening, rather than wait a few hours to know the full details of any given situation. But it also enables misinformation to spread like a virus. It is toxic in that sense and it was toxic yesterday. Within an hour of it happening, rumours were flying around and hate speech had already started to be spouted all over Twitter and Facebook. I reserved my judgements until the full facts were known. We have now been told by the authorities that yes, this was a terrorist attack motivated by fundamentalism and a hatred of the military. But the ignorance does not end even when the basic facts are known. Facebook opened my eyes to this.
I despair of Facebook in a way I don’t with Twitter. Twitter is full of strangers and it’s hard to remain angry at someone who you don’t know or have any direct contact with. You can hate what they say, but you have no personal relationship. Facebook is a very different beast. It is defined by the relationships and friendships you conduct there. You have control over who sees what and who you add or delete. That’s why I despaired all the more, because suddenly people in my life – people I love and respect – were saying things I never expected from them.
But it’s understandable, if not excusable. This attack has a unique horror to it by its very nature. All the details we now know have evolved into a narrative that fires your emotions. The facts go from “men kill man” to “two black men claiming to be Muslims shoot and behead a British soldier wearing a Help for Heroes t-shirt”. You hear about these kinds of barbaric acts – beheadings, stonings – happening in other countries, but you are insulated by your surroundings. You feel, as a British citizen living in a so-called liberal democracy, that you need never worry this thing will happen on your streets. But now it has. And how do you react to something so awful when you have no experience of knowing how to react? I understood the hatred. People were saying “kick them all out”, “kill them all”, “fuck off home” and many other variations of this sentiment. Emotions are raw. This isn’t any old murder. It was, to many people’s minds, a brutal murder of a serving member of our armed forces – tasked with defending British citizens – by crazed extremists. And you picture your own son, your own brother, or your father, being that victim. Who wouldn’t be angry?
But that doesn’t excuse the ignorance. In the hours after something like this, people don’t search for facts. They want to vent and rant. So it doesn’t matter that this act was committed by two black men – people will still have a go at “P***s”. One of the saddest things on my Facebook feed last night came from a young woman I know back home. She is half Turkish and has suffered her own experiences of racial abuse and ignorance. She left a fairly eloquent status about the attacks, and I thought, “Wow, how lovely”. If you knew the crowd she hung around with, you would not expect such rationality. But then this morning I checked again, only to see her now ranting about “throwing all P**** out” of Britain. What a difference 8 hours makes.
I also saw multiple statuses referring to “our way of live” and telling the perpetrators to “go home”. Whilst the facts relating to their nationality are not known – indeed fundamentalists usually attach themselves to their cause, rather than their flag – I suspect they are British-born. Just as the 7/7 Tube bombers were. This is something we must not lose sight of. These are our compatriots. It’s comforting to imagine they are alien to us, and in their views they certainly are, but they aren’t all that different in a few basic aspects. These are men who live, breathe, work, love, and hate. They have families and friends. They had a car. I suspect they have or have had jobs in London. It reassures us to think they are not normal, that they are “mentally unhinged”, and indeed some wiring in their heads must be loose to have been brainwashed into such a callous act. But many of them aren’t the “nutters” we paint them to be. They often come from unremarkable backgrounds, as the Tube bombers did. Indeed, the ringleader of the 7/7 attacks was recognised as a community man, known for running youth clubs for local teenagers. The minute we lose sight of the fact that these extremists are living and working in our communities, we put ourselves on a path that leads us away from defeating terrorism. If we are only ever looking for machete-wielding “psychos”, then we ignore the silent enemy in the background who spreads the poison without attention.
There were also the suggestions that we should have killed the suspects and that the death penalty should be brought back. I understand these arguments, but they can be deconstructed quite easily. On the first point, to kill the suspects, whilst giving us a sense of temporary justice, is not productive in the slightest. If we are to attack extremism with the full weight of the law and intelligence services then we can’t miss an opportunity to retrieve said intelligence. If you kill the suspects, what do we learn about their motives? We need to know if they are acting alone or as part of a wider plot. These things can’t be gained from a corpse. On the death penalty suggestion, I see this as no deterrent to this specific brand of criminal. Terrorists do not fear death – they merely view it as a route to their own martyrdom. For them, it is a victory. If they were scared of dying, why did they stay around to boast of their killing and spout their views into phone cameras? If they were scared of dying, why did they attempt to attack the armed police, who then proceeded to shoot them? The death penalty may deter some crimes, but not terrorism. If you can happily fly a plane into a building, the lethal injection isn’t going to scare you.
So where does this lead us to? What is the solution? The political consequences of this attack will unfold in the coming days. I suspect there will be calls for a raft of measures aimed at squeezing people’s rights, as we saw in the aftermath of 7/7. There has already been a suggestion this morning that the data communications bill absolutely must go through, despite several concerns about what it means to the average citizen in terms of their privacy. Suggestions of this nature will continue to pour in, I’m sure. In terms of the social consequences, I fear revenge attacks will become more widespread as further details emerge. The EDL kicked off last night, surprise surprise. How typical of them to use this for point scoring. They spent most of last night fighting the police – how revolutionary. The EDL solution will only ever lead us to more hate and more fear on our streets and we must fight fascism and racism with the same fervour we intend to fight terrorism.
In my view, we need a root-and-branch re-examination of what it means to live and govern in Britain in the 21st century. We are faced with a new type of terrorism, that of the so-called “lone wolf”, and it needs new solutions and ideas. We can’t bury our heads in the sand and say this is an exceptional situation, because it isn’t. This sort of attack is, unfortunately, going to become more prevalent. Whilst governments and intelligence services go after the big terror rings, smaller agents are preparing and organising all the time. The acts of these terrorists are never justified, but it would be foolish of us to ignore their motives and reasons. Knowledge is power. Ignorance breeds hate. We must educate ourselves and those around us.
I’ll end this post with a quote from a friend of mine on Facebook. She is a former colleague and someone who has a personal connection to the armed forces. I admired and respected her restrained attitude when so many other people around us were going for the jugular. She said, “my sons say they won’t have kids, because why would they want to bring them into this world?”. It’s a simple statement and one that is often trotted out at times like this, but it really struck a chord with me. I want children, in fact I want quite a few of them. But if a mother’s greatest responsibility is to protect and nurture her child, then why would anyone bring a child into this world? I now think, perhaps, the best thing I could do for the protection of my future children is to not bring them into this world at all. I hope I am proved wrong.