Human, all too human
It is usually the details that allow you to grasp the full horror of a tragedy. Earlier today the BBC reported that the first victim of the bombing at the Manchester Arena to be named publically was Georgina Callander, an 18-year-old in “the second year of a health and social care course”. The realisation that a young woman heading towards a lifetime of caring for others, had been murdered by people who cared only for their glory and their twisted political agenda, came to me as an almost physical sensation, as if rage was replacing out the blood in my veins.
I confess this in order to acknowledge that what I am about to ask of you is very difficult. Once you have finished reading this, you may think I am imploring you to respond like a robot rather than a person. In that regard, you would be right, and that is the point. Terrorists know that their adversaries are human and have designed tactics that prey on the vulnerabilities of the human psyche. They want to draw attention to their movement, so they cause pain, knowing that our empathy will make it hard for us to ignore the harm they are doing. They need our resolve to waver, so they generate as much fear in as many people as possible, knowing that being scared can make us fight, but it can also put us to flight. And they need us to make mistakes in how we respond to their atrocities, so they act with such callousness that we cannot help becoming mad with rage. You see, not only do terrorists know we are not calculating machines, they are relying on it.
In a situation where our humanity has been weaponised, the wisest cause is to be more than Vulcan than man. Our sympathy for the victims may feel helpful, and if allied to concrete actions it can be. When it motivates taxi drivers to turn off their metres while they ferry survivors home, or increases the determination of police and spies to prevent future attacks, then such feelings are a powerful force for good. Otherwise, they are dangerous. Sympathy is a positive emotion, but where terrorism is concerned it will almost invariably be intermingled with darker emotions. When I read about Ms Callander’s demise, my first thought was not that I wished I could comfort those close to her, but that I regretted that her killer’s death was likely instantaneous. I fantasised about a more lingering and hopefully agonising demise.
You may feel that a suicide bomber would have earned such a fate. I probably wouldn’t disagree. Nonetheless, fear and anger tend to be corrosive. Unmoored from a constructive outlet, they can create a distressing sense of impotence. Taking a flight or a metro ride can become an unsettling experience, because you now feel powerless to protect yourself against the terrorist you imagine to be lurking amongst your fellow commuters. Even worse things happen when we try to shake this sense of impotence. Denied good ways to respond, we find bad ones. We shred our civil liberties, start wars, seek out scape goats, and look to strong men for protection.
Behind cruelty lies weakness
The tragic irony behind all this is that a clear-headed analysis would actually be rather reassuring. Worldwide, more people are killed by snakes than terrorists and their attacks account for just 0.0006% of all deaths. They target teenagers dancing along to Break Free partly because they are wicked, but mostly because they are desperate. If they could have instead destroyed the White House or an aircraft carrier, we can be sure that is what they would have done, but they are military and geopolitical minnows, and the vast majority of people could safely ignore them.
We don’t do that, however, because terrorism is an exhibitionist malady. They use cruelty to draw the spotlight to themselves. For example, the perpetrators of the Paris attacks wore bodycams and livestreamed their atrocity. They also benefit from an unfortunate paradox: Precisely because terrorist attacks are so rare, when one happens it seems remarkable and we take notice. Media across the world will cover last night’s attacks and people living continents away from Manchester will be frightened and upset. It shouldn’t be like this. Like most attention seekers, terrorists do not merit much consideration.
Just to reiterate, I do know how difficult what I’m suggesting is. While I was writing this post, a notification from the BBC news app came through on my phone, relaying the ghastly news that an eight-year old had died in the Manchester attack, and once again I felt an intense hatred for people who could do such a thing. However, we could perhaps try acting as if we already feel, how we hope one day we will really feel. If we think that terrorists do not deserve our attention, we shouldn’t do things that draw attention to them. Tweeting out “sympathy for Manchester” or posting on Facebook about how angry killing children makes you is a very human response, but as we’ve seen terrorism prays on our humanity. In this case, it is using our empathy to generate publicity for their attacks. If you want to defy these killers, offer them the one emotion they have no use for: apathy.
I recently wrote a long series of posts exploring the theme of this post in much greater depth. I hope regular readers will forgive the repetition but making those arguments in the abstract, felt rather different from doing so in the direct aftermath of an attack. It is in precisely these moments that the most acute decisions about responding to terrorism are made and I felt that if I could not make my arguments speak to times like this then they were of little value at all.