Saturday, 14 November 2015

A response to atrocity

Dear Reader,

Have you changed your social media picture, or posted a response online to the recent events in Paris?  Have you asked yourself why?

I write not to condemn those actions, but to question them.

Social media has a part to play in news, tragedy included.  It perpetuates stories, offers alternatives, prompts questions.  Often, it is the first place news breaks for individuals.  Enormous world events such as tsunamis, earthquakes, war, terrorism: social media gives us immediate access to 'facts' and 'commentary', all bundled up together, such that it takes skill to unweave them and a critical eye to examine what one considers to be the truth.  It allows us to formulate our response carefully, based on a majority view, or in counterfoil to it; because the news and the opinion comes concomitantly. None of this is new, and none of it needs to be a problem, if we are self-aware enough to realise the bubble we float in.  Facebook's contribution to the flow of information regarding the safety of loved ones has also been welcomed as a practical way to help in the face of disaster.

However, terrorism seems to me to be a very special case.

Why comment that a terrorist event is 'tragic', 'senseless'. or 'terrible'? Almost all humans will agree with you (or say they do), and without a doubt all your Facebook friends, carefully selected and edited, are more than likely to do so.  We seem to live in an age where politicians role model this process, and we unquestioningly follow; racing to post a status, Tweet or blog (irony accepted) about the event, as if we wish to claim the emotion somehow, or we must declare ourselves against it for fear of people assuming the opposite.  Why?

And why the need to make a public show of deploring murder on a large scale, but not for individuals?  After all, if you read a news story about a women killing her husband in your country, you most likely wouldn't feel the need to post something online stating that you disagree with it and it is immensely sad; why then, when bigger numbers are involved, does that urge emerge?

One answer to this may be the 'solidarity' argument; that you are not separating yourself from the criminals for its own sake, but to stand beside the victims in love and sympathy.  Those who have changed their profile pictures would suggest, I imagine, that this is the reason.

But ask yourself this: what are you standing with, and what against?  And what, precisely, is that post or picture on social media supposed to do about it?

Some people say they stand for 'humanity'.  Either you mean 'humanity' as in 'all humans' - terrorists included - or you mean 'the concept of compassion and kindness'.  Are you, in principle, extending that out to those responsible?  Or should we only be kind to those we can relate to, or victims, or people in countries with the same religion as us?

Others, the media included,  seem to place emphasis on the nationalities of those killed. British victims, the inference is, should somehow hurt us more than those who happened to be born, or brought up, elsewhere. A similar thing seems to happen with women and children - that they are somehow worse sorts of victims than men. Why doesn't every life matter equally, if you stand for 'humanity'?

Right now, I see a host of blinking French flags across my Facebook feed.  These people, in good faith, may be trying to do a good thing in the face of atrocity.  But really, all they are doing is spreading a very visual, very evident consequence of an act of terrorism - and consequences are what terrorism thrives on  An act of terrorism is about so much more than just the act itself; it is the fear, and the spreading changes people make to accommodate that fear, that gives terrorists power.

This article, by Bruno S. Frey, looks at ways to deal with terrorism in the modern world.  The first two are to decentralise power and economy; and to present positive incentives to terrorists not to engage in terrorist acts, to include rehabilitating them (this is where your commitment to the concept of 'humanity' might be sorely tested).  The third is to refrain, wherever possible, from giving the terrorists attention.

If you want to do something, the first step might be to think deeply and carefully about your response, and include 'no response' as a very viable option. Terrorism, by its very nature, is not 'senseless'.  The events in Paris are another example of planned, political attacks on the public designed to make a very specific point.  What differentiates terrorism from warfare, 'intervention' or widely sanctioned violence is simply whether is is 'authorised'.  It is not whether civilians are involved (sometimes), or where it occurs (anywhere) or who does it (trained individuals who strongly believe their cause is right).   Public attention is a huge power source, collected even more efficiently through social media than ever before.  Violent attacks are not lacking in media coverage or public awareness: what they are lacking in is measured, considered, individualised response.

Sadness is deep, and heavy, and painful, and I am sure some of you are experiencing this now.  If you are empathetic enough to feel a real sadness for human beings you have never met and know nothing about - and may not have liked, if you did - then perhaps this is something that may not need to be declared publicly, for fear of trivialising it.  If, however, the words are simply a way of paying lip service, then there is no real need to say them.  Either way, social media may not be the best place for such things.

I am not criticising your right to post a response to a news story, nor share your emotions online if you feel this is helpful.  I am not defending one option over another, necessarily.  I am asking you to question why, when violent attacks happen, you might sweep them up into a neat little box marked 'terrorism', ignore the ambiguities and contradictions and conflict present, and simply declare that you are 'for' the victims, or their country, or their religion, or everyone in the world. If you weren't before, why now?  What has changed?

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