What is it that they know?

I’m rarely prone to panic, and despite the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, I pass through railway stations and airports without anxiety. It’s true that if I’m on a train, or on the Tube, an unaccompanied bag or box will nag at me until I see it repossessed, and I admit that I glance with a little apprehension at backpacks. I try hard to avoid racial stereotyping when I’m assessing the suicidal intent of my fellow passengers. But most of the time I’m entirely blasé about risk, not bravely uncaring, but unconscious or it. After all, the more we give in to fear, the more the terrorists are winning. And, as we all know when we do the arithmetic, the risks are greater from road traffic, mad cows and falling masonry.

That said, I don’t like to see well-armed soldiers patrolling in a shopping mall. Our LLP Group offices adjoin the seldom-visited Harfa Shopping Mall in Prague. The mall, built around four years ago, has been, I suppose, a commercial disaster, and as I pass through it every day between the metro station and my office, I note that yet more shops have closed and others, selling ever trashier trash, have taken their place. Tragically, Marks and Spencer closed a couple of months ago and I miss their biscuits terribly. Shoppers are sadly few and far between, except on those evenings when there’s an ice-hockey match in the O2 Arena next door.

So, why, suddenly are there gun-toting soldiers on the prowl? What do they know? It’s hard to imagine that Prague’s Harfa Shopping Mall would make a good target for terrorists. Or perhaps, that’s its very attraction. It’s such a soft target that it’s a perfect one. But if not terrorists, then what is there to fear? Even rival shopping malls have no good reason to provoke an outrage here. They’ve nothing to gain.

harfa soldiers

Far from being reassuring, the presence of soldiery makes me nervous. If they’re needed, then something must be wrong. It’s like seeing the cages and walls that surround US Embassies all over the world. If they’re needed, then something must be wrong. I walk on the other side of the street whenever possible.

And on my way home on the metro yesterday, six soldiers on patrol at Florenc station, boarded my carriage at the very last moment. They didn’t seem especially alert. I stood next to them, almost crushed up against a semi-automatic rifle, terrified that an inadvertent movement might be misinterpreted. Everyone tried to look relaxed about their presence, without entirely succeeding. I studied their uniforms (parachute regiment), weapons (real, and each of them with two) and demeanour (cheerful).

Perhaps they’ve been put on the streets to reassure us, but they have the opposite effect on me. If anything they make me more anxious. It’s the thought that we need protection as close as this. And it’s the knowledge that if a terrorist gang sprang into action, there’s little these brave soldiers could do about it.

 

Faraway Places

When Turkish fans jeered and booed during a minute’s silence held at the start of a football match between Turkey and Greece in November last year, some saw it as support for terrorism and as an insult to those who died or were injured at the hands of terrorists in Paris a few days earlier. More likely it was a protest against unequal and hypocritical treatment, since there were no similar moments of solidarity in Western Europe when more than 100 people were killed by terrorists a month or so earlier in Ankara.

It is a sad fact that all kinds of proximity make a difference to how we feel about events. Geography, family, tribe, culture, language, gender, race, religion – all bring us closer to, or distance us from, others’ suffering and joy.

Though technology has shrunk the world, the emotional impact of events in distant places is still diminished by distance. In 1938 Neville Chamberlain could speak disparagingly of a ‘quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing’. You’d have to travel further from London to be ‘far away’ in today’s world, but clearly what happens in Ankara hurts us less than what happens in Paris, even if it should not. The distance from Number Ten to Prague is still just a thousand miles, but London and Prague are closer than they were, especially since 1989. Indeed, events all over Western Europe are closer than they were, closer not only because physical access is easier but because there are more bases for solidarity – our ‘European’ way of life has converged on a liberal democratic model, we’re all seeking ‘ever closer union’, and we all have a strong shared sense of ‘European values’ (sadly, I am being facetious, but I wish it were so!).

A far away man

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I was thinking about all this yesterday when reading an article on the BBC News website by Sarah Dunant about having too much money. The article was inspired by the leaking of the Panama Papers. She was curious about why people with vast amounts of money squirrel it away in far away places. But what interested me was her reference to Peter Singer, the Australian moral philosopher. He’s most famous for his work on animal rights, but has recently been promoting the idea of ‘effective altruism’, urging the rich to give their money away, but not necessarily to causes that are ‘close’ to them:

Broadly based on utilitarianism – he argues that if our decisions about our behaviour and use of money were based on how to effect the greatest good for the greatest number, then once we had what we needed we would simply give the rest away. But not necessarily to the causes we might naturally feel closest to. His definition of altruism here is not interested in feeling – indeed he argues that empathy can be dangerous simply because it can be manipulated, but rather adherence to a guiding moral principle.

This seems an odd idea to me, or, putting it another way, an unrealistic and unnatural one. Such ‘guiding moral principles’ would surely demand that we give our family and friends no special status, let alone our colleagues, compatriots, or co-religionists . But moral calculation can’t be a cold and technical affair, the application of principles from a distance. The basis for morality, to my mind, lies in ‘feeling’, our instinctive identification with others and with their pleasures and suffering. It’s this that also makes us hear noise as speech and meaning, and makes the brain the mind. ‘Effective altruism’ could have no underlying ‘engine’ if it must be separate from these feelings, and these feelings are inevitably stronger when identification is made easier by proximity in one form or another. That’s not to say that equal moral weight should not be given to Ankara and to Paris, but it is to understand why it doesn’t happen and never will unless the far away places come yet closer.

 

Explanation, Understanding and Excuse

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I listened on Saturday morning to BBC Radio 4’s phone-in programme, Any Answers, which was dominated by the horrifying events in Paris on Friday evening. Amongst the dozen or so who called in to air their views there were the usual cranks, including a man advocating the incarceration of the families of terrorists, and suspected terrorists, in concentration camps, but the majority of the despair was liberal and thoughtful.

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A British man called from Paris first to commiserate, and then to make the point that Paris is a much less contentedly multiracial city than London. Its North African Muslims, particularly, feel marginalised and excluded, and large numbers live separately in what amount to suburban ghettos. They have fewer opportunities, and are often subject to open discrimination. Many are angry, resentful, frustrated, and, as a consequence, they may be prey to religious radicalisation. He made these points reasonably, and was equally as angry about Friday’s atrocities and as sorrowful as any of the other callers. He mentioned that he is of mixed race himself, and was always more conscious of this in Paris than in the UK.

The caller who followed him was indignant, suggesting that his predecessor had been ‘excusing’ terrorism by attempting to explain it. This was before the identity of any of the killers was known (at least one, it now seems, was a radicalised French Muslim), and before IS claimed responsibility.

I remember many years ago the outrage that followed a remark made by Cherie Blair, wife of Britain’s former Prime Minister. She let slip that she ‘understood’ the frustration of the Palestinians who carried out attacks against Israel. She was forced to retract and apologise, though she never meant to excuse Palestinian terrorism.

But to attempt to understand and to explain is not to excuse. Understanding is essential if there is to be solution and prevention. Of course nothing can excuse the cold-blooded killing of non-combatant civilians going about their everyday lives in the streets, cafes, stadiums and concert halls of Paris, except perhaps insanity (and perhaps insanity doesn’t excuse, even if it negates legal responsibility). Whatever our background, unless we are certifiably insane, we choose what we do and are responsible for our actions. Just as we do not discount the merit of courage if a brave man or woman has been lucky in his or her family and education, so we do not discount evil if it’s perpetrated by the marginalised, the unlucky, the poor.

After all, if explanation were a form of excuse, then we could all blame our actions on the interactions of our cerebral synapses, which we don’t control at the cellular level. As conscious, sane, adequately intelligent, adult human beings we are responsible for what we do however we are formed.

But nevertheless it would be stupid to pretend that policy doesn’t affect the conditions in which wrong choices are made. Following the riots of Britain in 1981 when the disaffected and recession-hit communities of Brixton and other inner cities flung Molotov cocktails at the police, the Government commissioned a public inquiry which found evidence of racism in police behaviour towards the black community. Legislation and a massive programme of investment followed, despite Margaret Thatcher’s refusal to accept communal disadvantage as any kind of explanation.

It would be stupid, also, to suppose that ‘Western’ policy in the Middle East hasn’t had a causal influence on what’s happening now, though it isn’t at all obvious what anyone should do next. Poverty and contempt breed violence.

Explanation and understanding are essential, alongside emotion. Concentration camps, bombing, and walls, solve nothing in the long term. But, even so, nothing excuses individual acts of terror and murder. I am sorry for all those affected by Friday’s events in Paris. What must we do to prevent further tragedies?

Even if Paris doesn’t always live up to the high ideals of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, they are strikingly less prevalent in the Middle East, from where most of today’s terrorism comes. Whether that is because of, or despite, the West’s century or more or meddling, is a larger topic. One way or another there are precious few benign regimes in the region, and even fewer that are liberally democratic. Everyone seems to know that the solution lies there, but no one knows what it is.