Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Reacting to atrocities

Thirty-five people are killed and many more injured in Brussels, and we react, rightly, with revulsion. Nothing justified their deaths: they were wholly random victims. They were killed by men who claimed to speak in the name of Islam but, though their victims might have been dedicated enemies of Islam, it would have made absolutely no difference had they all been devout Muslims, leading lives wholly in keeping with Islamic teaching – they would have been killed or hurt anyway.

We react, first, emotionally. Monuments across Europe are lit in the colours of the Belgian flag. Crowds attend vigils or simply express their sadness and horror. And that’s perfectly commendable if, sometimes, a little excessive. After all, far more people are killed or injured on the roads, with nothing like the reaction; but as Simon Jenkins pointed out in the Guardian, we aren’t talking about rational but emotional responses. We feel, correctly or incorrectly, that we have control over whether we’re involved in a car crash; we have no control over whether a pitiless bomber chooses us as his next, random victim.

Next we react politically. But, in fact, our political reaction is emotional too. In Britain, the outrage in Brussels is informing the debate about whether we should leave the EU (in the hope that this would erect a barrier against these vile persons) or stay (in the belief that this would enhance cooperation between security services against such attacks). It also inspires a still more sinister discourse, which would have us give up more liberties in the name of security, sacrificing privacy, for instance, to allow government to spy on our e-mails or internet browsing. That argument is made though the security is against an extremely unlikely and probably temporary threat, while the loss of freedom is massive and likely to prove long term.

Then we learn of another outrage. Seventy people killed this time, as well as hundreds injured, in a park in Lahore. And our reaction is interesting. It’s nothing like as intense. The deaths matter far less to us when they happen in Pakistan. No monuments are lit up in the green and gold colours of that country’s flag. When we’re shocked at the senseless loss of human life, we really mean the loss of life among humans who look a bit more like us, and don’t live that far away. Remoteness and difference lessens the feel of shock.

That’s true even though the bombers deliberately chose to blow themselves up in an area where large numbers of children were gathered and would inevitably suffer.

And how about another example? Several hundred killed in London, and many more injured. Again, by merciless bombers who felt they were doing good work for an excellent cause. Again, the victims were random, depending on where they were at the time a bomb struck. And again, many were women or children.

Why aren’t we horror-struck by this devastation? The answer is once more remoteness. Not in space, on this occasion, but in time. That particular bombing outrage took place during the night of 7 to 8 September 1940, the first day of Hitler’s air campaign that Britain came to know as the Blitz.

That, of course, is just history, as Lahore’s just geography. But curiously, there’s a lesson to learn from it. British spirits weren’t broken by the terror that fell from the sky – any more than German spirits were broken by the same treatment, in Cologne, Hamburg, Berlin or Dresden. The raids on that last sad city claimed up to 25,000 lives in just three days. A single night’s bombing of Hamburg took 42,000 lives, against a total of 40,000 killed in London in all 57 raids of the Blitz.

But whether in Britain or in Germany, whether inflicted by the Nazis or the Allies, what all these attacks have in common is that they were far more extensive than anything we’re seeing today.

An image of the London Blitz
And of the spirit that saw people through it. Which we need to rediscover
Eventually, though, our countries emerged from those terrible experiences and built far better structures for the defence of liberties and human rights than had ever existed before.

Wouldn’t it be a pity if, in our responses to the current wave of outrages, we were to sacrifice them all again?

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