The look in the woman’s eyes was suspicious and apologetic all at once. I was travelling in London for the first time since 7/7 and the woman was joining a few other passengers in slowly moving down the carriage, away from my friend and I. It wasn’t as subtle a move as they had hoped.
My friend is Iranian (or just from Sunderland; definitions of how many generations it takes to be British get unclear when people are scared) and I’m dark skinned (Portuguese extraction), always sporting an unkempt beard when I’m not working and I was carrying a rucksack for good measure.
I found the situation sad, scary and a little bit humorous. Sad, because I never want to be the cause of discomfort to others. Scary, because I could see how much the world had changed. Humorous, as I desperately wanted to explain that we were just heading into town to watch the football and have a pint – hardly sinister. My rucksack contained dirty underwear, deodorant and a toothbrush. My friend said it was a reaction he had become used to.
After 9/11 I was unable to travel through airports without getting searched. I just look like a terrorist. If you drew a mental picture of a terrorist you would end up with me. Security normally takes me longer than my wife but that is fine. I would rather security were stopping people who look like me, it isn’t a perfect system – but I understand the intent is to protect not to victimise.
So that is the context. I’m not a terrorist, but people sometimes check if I’m Muslim before beginning a uneducated ‘them and us’ rant.
How are people reacting to yesterday’s attack?
Having one clearly identifiable victim, as we have in the incident in Woolwich, has a hugely powerful psychological impact. We struggle to conceive of the damage a World War or an event like 9/11 causes, so we just acknowledge it as horrible and undesirable – but we think of numbers of people, not actual people. Our brain just can’t conceive of all of the people and relationships involved.
When you have one victim it is easier to relate to. That is why charities often show you one person and then name them in order to encourage you to donate money.
- A million people starving? Tragic, but remote and I can’t help them all
- One baby crying? Emotions kick into overload
One person was murdered in Woolwich yesterday. A person being killed in London isn’t an exceptional event, but the following things make this a really dangerous and potentially significant event – because they form a perfect storm of elements likely to provoke a disproportionate reaction
- it was in daylight. We like to think of daylight as being safer, bad things happen at night don’t they?
- it happened to a member of the armed services. If it can happen to someone trained to defend himself then we are all vulnerable
- it was in London, so statistically more people will feel it happened locally than if it had happened elsewhere
- it was an attack that reinforced stereotypes. A raving, knife wielding religious zealot.
- it was a person with dark skin – and the easiest and laziest definition of British would automatically exclude them. The religious/ethnic/race differentiation can be easily simplified if we just suspect people who aren’t light skinned
What I saw immediately afterwards in terms of response is as much of a problem for this country as the actual, tragic event.
- within a few minutes Twitter was ablaze with rumour about the event. If you post enough half truths some of them will stick
- the government convened COBRA. I hope they are acting on further information we aren’t aware of, otherwise they are giving out the message that the country is under seige in response to one murder. If the murderer had been shouting about having an objection to war based in belief in another religion (Christianity…) would the response have been the same? There are just over 10 murders a week in the UK
- there was an immediate flurry of tributes on Facebook. Evocative pictures of poppies etc. If you read the comments you will see a degree of hate and bile that does no justice to the memory of a soldier. Just people stirring things up and allocating the blame to whoever they consider to not be ‘us’
- there was disagreement in the live feed from the BBC as to whether the term ‘Muslim looking’ was acceptable
In the months following 9/11 Americans didn’t want to fly. A study has shown that more people died in car accidents caused by this change of behaviour than in the actual event itself. We overestimate the likelihood of ‘dread events’ – terrorist attacks, shark attacks etc – and make bad choices as a result.
The UK needs to ensure that there is a measured response to this act, so that the consequences of this new act aren’t felt more than they need to be. Where would you like the government’s focus to be today? Dealing with the crisis in the NHS – a failing that causes pain for millions – or focusing on one horrific event. Logic dictates you help millions, public and press dictate you make speeches.
Factors exist are that could make this event hugely inflammatory (check the newspaper headlines today). I found someone moving down a train carriage a few years ago a bit humorous, but that is only because I thought that would pass.
There seems to be a groundswell of uneducated and poorly thought out reaction creeping into mainstream Britain, that suggests suspicion and casual racism may be here to stay and even become the norm.
And the poster boy for the next wave of hate and suspicion might be a poor man just going out for a walk in London.
One identifiable victim.
Note: I welcome comments on this blog – but I’ll delete any that offend reason or are designed to offend others. Thanks.
Identifiable victim effect