Monday, 27 March 2017

Tragedy, and the human response to it

So, I guess that really we all knew this day would come again. Once again a terrorist attack has taken place in the UK. This time driven by someone who has taken extremist Islam as their reason for pointlessly murdering innocent people on our streets. It is truly terrible that 4 people who had no idea what was going to happen or choice that day had their lives taken by a coward who attacked them hoping he would never have to live with the consequences. 

There is no singular normal, typical or expected reaction to this sort of news. It is rightly so alien to us that we will all decide how to react - and it is not the right of society to enforce "norms" on us. That reaction is made up of our initial emotion, and then the judgements, conclusions and responses we then show. Many people have tried to use this attack as a weapon to whip up further hatred, anger and division. I want to consider whether this reaction stands up to close scrutiny. This is not to shame or insult people, but to offer them an alternative reflection to consider. 

We have had almost a full week since the terrible events that claimed the lives of a policeman and 3 random members of the public. Enough time for every possible shade and shape of human opinion (no matter how vile or incredible) to have made its way on to social media. Certainly an initial reaction from a lot of people (and we can't know if it is a majority, a large minority or simply the most vocal) was that this attack showed why we should "send them all home". Those angrily opposed to migration into the country certainly believed this was an opportunity to finally show how Muslims flooding into the country were a danger to our very lives. Of course, the problem with that was very quickly it was found out that the attacker was British born. 

But the leap from there having been an attack to this snap reaction is an obvious, if flawed one. If a Muslim coming into this country has carried out an attack, then there must be more coming in to do the same - this is finally the evidence of that. Of course, that sentence belies the incorrect thinking behind it - those people who are afraid that immigration makes us less secure ALREADY believed that before this attack. That the attacker was British born will do nothing to stop them thinking that. In many cases no amount of evidence will stop people thinking that. The term used by psychologists is "unsubstantiated conclusive" thinking - where you jump to a pre-determined conclusion irrespective of the evidence. It is easy to understand this thinking - particularly when it is reinforced and fuelled by so much of the media establishment in this country and parties like UKIP. 

From there, the next opinion or perception that came about was that actually all, or a large section, of the Muslim community in this country were dangerous. The proposed answer therefore is either to kick out all Muslims or to start a process for internment for them. Again, the logical flow behind this seems to be straight-forward. There is a danger from a particular community, we should therefore lock all or some of them up to keep everybody else safe. If you break that down, there are actually 3 separate ideas to consider. The first one is that there is a danger from an identifiable group (Muslims), we can spot those likely to be dangerous, and that internment will reduce the danger and make us safe. 

Well, if we take the first point, that there is a danger from an identifiable group (Muslims) then we have to look at the terrorist attacks in recent memory. The definition of a terrorist attack "means acts of persons acting on behalf of, or in connection with, any organisation which carries out activities directed towards the overthrowing or influencing, by force or violence, of Her Majesty's government in the United Kingdom". That would then seem to equally apply to 2 recent terrorist attacks - this one and the murder of Jo Cox MP. Jo Cox was killed by a man who had links to extremist organisations (the National Front, EDL and the National Alliance). Certainly 2 of those groups have openly tried to influence the government through violence. He was a lone attacker, who took inspiration from those groups without being directed by them to carry out an attack. He used weapons he had to hand to carry out a targeted but unsophisticated attack to create a feeling of terror in the political establishment. He had a troubled existence with a history of sporadic behaviours. All of those things apply equally to the recent attacker. 

There is one difference however, ISIL, following the attack claimed that Khalid Massood was now a soldier of ISIL. Many have hung their hats on this fact to differentiate the 2 events. However, that does not hold up. Khalid Massood, as far as we know at this point, had no contact or direction from them. To hang whether someone is guilty of a terrorist attack or not based on what somebody else does after the fact simply doesn't make sense. Equally, to the victims of the attack, I am sure they would have scant regard for this distinction. So we are left with not one group of terrorists to worry about, but 2 - Muslim fanatics and right-wing fanatics. 

If we look at the proposed solution to this, internment, then we would have to, from that, apply it equally to both of these groups. Of course, all of the available evidence, from whenever internment has been tried points to 2 very clear conclusions. Firstly, that it doesn't work and in many cases is counter-productive in that it acts as a recruiting sergeant for extremists. Secondly, that it will always lead to innocent people being unfairly imprisoned. These are clearly both very strong reasons to refuse to see internment as the answer. 

Clearly, this is not to say that nothing should be done to combat terrorist attacks. From every attack we need to learn what we can do to stop the next one. But currently, from what we are told, in this country we have been successful in stopping a number of attacks. To go further than we have so far we must challenge the radicalisation of any individuals in any group, ensure we have appropriate policing, security and intelligence strategies, and the tools and resources to carry them out. But internment is not one of those, and it never should be. Something must be done can not turn into the worst possible response must be done.

One of the very shameful events that cropped up in our reactions was that of the shaming of a Muslim woman, walking past an injured person being treated immediately after the attacks, ignoring what was going on and chatting on her mobile phone. For those that wanted yet further evidence of the inhumanity of Muslims, this seemed to be a "smoking gun". The picture very quickly spread across social media platforms - evidence (as if it was needed) that Muslims were against "us". When I initially saw it I too believed that it showed a woman on her phone near the scene of an atrocity. 

Again, we should break down the mindset that leads to this point. Firstly, we are attributing how somebody should react when something like that happens. Some people will rush to help, some will run away, and some people, in shock will try to pretend it hasn't happened. We can not judge how others react because we don't know what their reaction really says. Secondly, on the basis of a still photo shared on social media, this ladies actions and thoughts have been guessed at and then shared as if a clear and undeniable truth. If she was on her phone near the scene, could she not have been calling the emergency services? Telling her family what she had seen but that she was OK? Could she have been so wrapped up in her day she hadn't even realised what was happening? Anyone who has been to London will know that plenty of people in that city do walk around in that mode. Finally, there was a leap from her not reacting according to some decided norm, then on to her not caring or even being happy this had happened to that, somehow, being evidence that all Muslims are bad. I can't even believe I am writing this - but that is the logic that some bought into and shared - within 24 hours of the incident itself. 

Of course, the photo was then shown to be of something quite clearly different - the lady in question was not on her phone, but holding her face in shock and horror. But for people who wanted to believe the first interpretation because it supported their view - this wont matter. My point is that it is easy to be mistaken, or see one thing as something else. But we must be careful before being led to logical leaps and bounds by people on social media. It is natural (and uncontrollable) to have an emotional reaction when something like this happens. We all do it. It is easy to jump to conclusions - in fact in more dangerous times jumping to a snap decision is a survival strategy. But we should all be able to look at that conclusion, or flow of thought and ask ourselves - does my conclusion stack up - or does the conclusion have more to do with what I already believe? Because if we start making snap judgements on how our country protects itself, and treats us as citizens on the basis of our reactions - we bloody well have to get them right first. 

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