Terrorism revisited

I feel very very sad about the referendum results, but not entirely surprised given the previous election results.

I think the campaign has been fought on dishonest ground that didn’t represent what we were voting for, and the referendum and the Brexit campaign were the culmination of a particular message being pushed by vested interests in the media and politics for many years. It is part of a bigger problem of politics becoming ever more a game of the super-rich, corporate lobbying and propaganda, and less about representing what the majority of the electorate actually want. I think it is a sign of big trouble with the democratic process when two thirds of the cabinet are millionaires, and that demographic represents only 1% of the population, whilst they are supposed to speak for the breadth of the UK.

I’m not convinced that concerns about immigration are the unspoken elephant in the room, so much as one of a number of targets that keep on and on getting vilified and scapegoated for all of society’s ills. To paraphrase the metaphor: An immigrant, a voter and a millionaire politician are sitting at the table with 10 cookies. The politician takes 9 to give to his chums and then tells the voter “watch out, the immigrant is going to steal your cookie”.

What is unspoken is the responses we need to challenge these poisonous messages and to remind us that there but for fortune we could be in the shoes of an economic migrant, an asylum seeker, a single mother, a person with disabilities, a parent of a child with special needs, someone who loved that child that died because we didn’t have proper health and social care services, someone without legal representation, unemployed, the victim of racism/sexism/homophobia, the generation that live through war, etc. We should want to protect human rights and public services, legal aid, benefits and victims of crime, and to prevent war because we are them and they are us.

But somehow the talk was all focused on the money, and the immigrants, and the pointless bureaucracy of the EU. Maybe I am naive or cynical, but I think that a group of people have been actively driving that narrative for a long time, I don’t believe it is an organic grass-roots concern that has spontaneously bubbled up. I think there are vested interests pushing us towards greater income disparity, blaming of the vulnerable, and encouraging prejudice, selfishness and nihilism. I don’t think people are stupid, I think people have been drip fed right-wing propaganda for many many years, that blames all ills on “immigrants” and “benefits scroungers” so that we don’t look too hard at austerity politics and see all the vested interests. If there was a credible alternative, they’d as easily target that rage against the bankers, the corporations dodging tax and using zero hours contracts, and those using tax havens to hide their cash – all of which I consider to be much more legitimate targets.

As this article in the BMJ eloquently explained, the less people feel they have to lose, the more willing they are to take a gamble on a potentially risky outcome. And the results of austerity politics mean that large swathes of people are suffering financially, and feel powerless, hopeless, disenfranchised and exploited. At the same time as the referendum we have seen an even more tragic set of events unfolding that I think have the same underlying cause.

With the Miami mass shooting and the murder of Jo Cox (and longer ago, the shootings in Paris), I think that we have seen the ugly underbelly of what happens when people feel desperate and voiceless, and are radicalised by hearing poisonous messages blaming particular people for their unhappiness or lack of success in life. Both were horrendous acts, targeting people who had done absolutely nothing wrong in order to convey some kind of political message. Both were incredibly distressing to hear about, let alone for those who were personally involved.

Jo Cox was my age to within a fortnight and had a similar family configuration, so it has really hit home that her husband and kids will never see her again, just because she spoke out for compassion and inclusiveness. She is someone I had never heard of before she was attacked, but the more I read about her the more I like and admire her. She was taking action for the good of others, and she was a great example of our democracy. I have donated to the fund in her memory, and the fact it topped a million pounds in just a few days, suggests that I am not alone in wanting to take some kind of positive action in the face of such awful news.

And with that in mind, and the clear indications that this was politically motivated terrorism with a far-right agenda, I wanted to say something about all the references to mental illness. Being mentally ill doesn’t mean you kill people and killing people doesn’t mean you’re mentally ill. Doing something awful that we can’t understand is not the same as being mentally ill. One in four people has a mental illness, a characteristic as widespread as blond hair. The vast majority of them will never hurt anyone, and are at no greater risk of doing something awful than anyone else (although they are disproportionately the victims of violence). It is abhorrent to stigmatise all those people because of the actions of one person, even if he may have had mental health issues. He didn’t kill Jo Cox because he had mental health problems. He killed her because he wanted to promote his repugnant fascist beliefs.

I posted on Facebook about the causes of terrorism earlier in the week when the discussion was about the Miami mass murder, and this is exactly the same. This was what I wrote:

Just a reminder, but mental illness is not a cause of terrorism. There is pretty good research that has disproved this popular myth. People do awful things. We can’t understand that and we want to feel like they are different from us, so we assume their mind is broken. In fact the research says that it is a combination of a strong need to belong, coupled with a sense of marginalisation and injustice, dehumanisation of enemies, group processes where beliefs get hyped up into extreme actions and strong religious beliefs. Intelligent men who underachieve are particularly at risk for this radicalisation. That is, ordinary people with no genetic or mental abnormalities get pulled down a particular path by their experiences and social networks.

From a paper by Silke after 9/11:

“It is very rare to find a terrorist who suffers from a clinically defined ‘personality disorder’ or who could in any other way be regarded as mentally ill or psychologically deviant (Silke, 1998). Ultimately, the overwhelming majority of terrorists (and this significantly even includes suicide bombers) are average, normal individuals who in other circumstances would be quite unremarkable. Their involvement in terrorism is not the result of psychoses, inner traits or aberrant personalities. Rather, in most cases it is an understandable response to a series of life events.

The causes of terrorism need to be focused on – not just the actors. Once you are forced to throw away the ‘terrorists are different’ model, then attention must be given to other areas. An important realisation here is that becoming involved in terrorism is a process. Nobody is born a terrorist. Neither does anyone wake up one morning and decide abruptly that on that day they are going to start planting bombs in public streets. Becoming a terrorist is in the first instance an issue of socialisation. Any given society will possess some minorities or disaffected groups who rightly or wrongly perceive that the world is treating them harshly. In some cases there are genuine and very substantial causes for grievance. Individuals who belong to or identify with such disaffected groups share in a sense of injustice and persecution. It is from such pools that individual terrorists emerge”.

Western politicians will easily condemn muslim extremists, but in America in particular they find it much harder to look at terrorism fueled by prejudice, in this case racism (but previously by homophobia and religion) – because, like the gun lobby, it has so much popular support. I don’t have any solutions for that, but we do need to name the problem, and the problem is the rise of right wing regressive ideas, fueled by prejudice and religion, blaming every vulnerable minority whilst turning a blind eye to the rich and powerful exploiting the rest of us.

I want my country back from all this hatred and fear-mongering. We need to stop blaming the vulnerable, and start looking at the political system that has created an increasingly divisive and selfish society.

Some thoughts on the recent atrocities in Paris

The news of ordinary French people watching sport, chilling out at a cafe or attending a gig this week being gunned down by violent extremists, really brings home how it could have been any one of us. Its unthinkably awful that anyone would target random innocent civilians like this.

But the response from the public has been split in several directions. Do we need to toughen our stance on asylum seekers? Tighten border controls? Crack down on Muslims more generally? Do we need to show solidarity with the French by lighting everything from water fountains to facebook profiles in red, white and blue? Has this finally brought terrorism to us in Western Europe? Or does it just highlight how we are constantly ignoring the stories of so many people of other nationalities who have been killed across the world recently without making headlines of outpourings of sympathy? These are complicated questions to unpick.

In terms of whether the right response is to call for harsher actions towards violent extremists, I am reminded of an article I read in the psychologist, and an evidence review in the BPS research digest about the psychology of terrorism and extremism respectively. The main point I took from it is that acknowledging the kernel of legitimate grievance behind such actions and engaging in dialogue with moderates from similar demographics are both actions that make it harder to for extremists to recruit, whilst moving towards more polarised positions (eg all this tough talk about closing borders and not negotiating with terrorists) or language blaming the whole of a culture or religious group make more people within that broader group feel inclined to sign up to the more extreme positions.

Whilst the actions of ISIS are deplorable, the generalisation of negative feeling to all muslims is appalling. I even read about a tragic story in which a Hindu man had been pushed into the path of a train and killed by someone who thought this was a suitable reprisal for 9/11. Islam is a religion as large and diverse as Christianity. Nobody thinks the Klu Klux Klan represent Christians, yet large swathes of the western world appear to think ISIS speak for all muslims, when they are just as misrepresentative of the mainstream view within Islam. And alienating Muslims from the western world is a big mistake. The huge amount of moderate representatives of Islam (over a billion of them) are ordinary people who are just as appalled about the action of extremists as members of other religions or none. And they also form the moderate pole of the spectrum from which the extremists are drawn to ISIS. So we need to ensure that we engage this group in how we address these atrocities, and to integrate them into our societies to ensure this polarisation does not continue to play out across the world.

Extremism comes from perceived injustice and powerlessness amplified in small groups of like-minded others, and justified with reference to religion. Reducing injustice, allowing grievances to be heard and addressed, and being inclusive to moderate representatives are the only variables that anybody outside of the individual and those very small cultural subgroups has any control over, and it is these things that let South Africa get out of apartheid and Northern Ireland get out of the troubles there. I can’t see any other way to address the other conflicts going on in the world, be they in Afghanistan, Iraq, Gaza, Nigeria, Syria or Somalia. Surely, even if we accept that some human beings will always turn to violence, the aim is to reduce the scale of conflicts down from wars to individuals, so that less people get caught in the crossfire?

As to whether we have reacted with more sympathy to deaths in France to deaths elsewhere in the world. Again I think this is a complex issue. There is implicit bias in the system, coupled with habituation. We are more attentive to stories that feature people we identify with, and we pay more attention where the events seem novel, rather than recurrent. Think about children going missing from home and the coverage that white kids from ‘nice homes’ get when compared to any other ethnicity, or kids from the care system (by way of example, the other day I noticed that three kids went missing from the same place on the same day and only the white girl got news coverage). The British media definitely place more focus on events that affect white, western nations. Even though non-mainstream media and some voices within social media are picking up on this theme and people are starting to question the systemic bias in the news, I think it is fair to say that we do have endemic problems with racism in the western world. Whether that is due to prejudice, vested interests or the fact that telling stories about familiar protagonists or showing photos that look like the customer is more likely to sell newspapers or screen time, I don’t know.

However, people are always illogical about world events. An individual story you can relate to humanises what would otherwise be too overwhelming to process. Genocide, war, famine are all too big to conceptualise, so we figure we can’t make a difference and don’t give them much head space. We don’t know anything about the refugee camps outside Syria, or the day to day grimness of so many of these wide scale conflicts. However, a mother who can’t feed her child in the news coverage of the famine, an orphan who plays football on a LiveAid appeal video, the shock of an ordinary looking person at a gig or a cafe talking about how they saw their peers getting gunned down, or a dead baby washed up on a beach – those are the individual stories that we can relate to. They call out to us, and force us to place ourselves in the shoes of the protagonists, and that makes us sympathetic and much more drawn to positive action.

So do we speak up about all the missing stories when friends share content about Paris, to show their virtuousness is not evenly applied? I’m not so sure. It seems to me that the solution is not to criticise those people who do feel empathy with the individual stories they can relate to, but to tell the stories of the other conflicts in more relatable ways also, so they get a similarly empathic and constructive response. Compassion isn’t like a cake that is a finite resource that has to be shared out between all callers. It is something we can cultivate and broaden, and help to bring out in others.

It reminds me of a quote from Martin Luther King: “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that”.

And we have to reach beyond the boundaries of religion, ethnicity or nationality. Does it never seem absurd to you that people on this little blue-green planet we have evolved through the millennia to share are arguing about where somebody drew lines on a map hundreds of years ago, or whose stories about creation and morals are correct, without recognising that people are just people? Whatever colour of wrapping they come in, or language they speak or whether they believe in a God, and what name they call it makes no material difference to their ability to experience joy or suffering just the same as us. No matter how strange their lives seem, we’d have done the same if born into their community, and they’d be like us if born into ours.

So let us reach out in compassionate and loving ways to those around us, and especially to those showing ignorance or being excluded from our society. We are all in this together.