There were bombs in Brussels today, and I’m not going to talk about it.
I’m not going to post on social media about it, and I’m not going to change my profile picture so that it is overlaid with the Belgian flag. I’m not going to spend a lot of time looking at the TV news featuring mobile phone footage of explosions and billowing clouds of smoke, or of people running, bleeding, into the arms of rescue service personnel. I’m not going to listen to the voices of the radio reporters freighted with significance as they pronounce the tired tropes of terrorist journalism. I’m not going to read the obituaries of the victims, and feel my heart pang as I imagine how easily it could have been me, or some member of my family, or someone I know well. I’m not going to put myself into their shoes, and think about how terrible it must have been for them when they knew they were going to die. I’m not going to observe a minute’s silence.
I’m not going to get involved as political commentators argue whether the terrorists of whatever they’re currently being called represent the true face of Islam, and that even moderate Muslims secretly support what is being done, or whether they are as terrified as the rest of us, and see bombers as deluded psychopaths.
This isn’t because I don’t feel sympathy for the victims. I do. It isn’t because I support the terrorists, either. I hope it won’t surprise anyone who has read anything I have written to learn that I don’t think that the decadent West should come crashing down and be replaced by men with AK47s enforcing Sharia on a worldwide Caliphate.
I wrote a piece a week or so ago about the fact that most of the terrorising gets done by our own media and politicians, and how, despite a very low death rate from terrorism, it is made to seem that no price is too high to pay if it is seen to be a step closer to ridding the world of it, whether or not it actually will. The examples I used were the surveillance of our internet activity, and the holding of courts in private, but you could insert absolutely any of the many knee-jerks that spasming European or US politicians propose, including the infamous Donald Trump urge to ban all Muslims from entering the US ‘until our country’s representatives can figure out what the Hell is going on’. The start of that reflex, the sensory neurone part, if you like, is how we react on days like today. It’s the ‘why oh why?’ and the ‘what are we going to do?’ which leads to ‘stop them, stop them’ and then to collateral damage in Syria, and arson attacks on mosques in Bradford, which lead in their turn to more young men and women dashing off to Daesh, as if it’s going to answer their five times a day prayers.
It may seem insensitive to talk of a low death rate on the day when over 30 people have been killed, and I acknowledge that every one of those is somebody’s son, somebody’s daughter, mother, cousin, friend, I know that. Every death is a death too many. But I reserve the right to decide who I am going to grieve for; more specifically, in which outpourings of popular grief I am going to participate. I said ‘Je suis Charlie’ because I saw free expression under threat on our doorstep, even if it is the squalid freedom to offend Muslims, because vacuous and inoffensive speech scarcely needs protecting. I painted my profile pic after Paris because it is a city I know well, and people I love live there.
But I hear the accusations of those who say ‘What about Ankara? What about Baghdad? Don’t those deaths matter too?’ and I can’t help going further. Yes. And what about the deaths of the Syrian people at the hands of the Assad government, and at the hands of the Syrian rebels, and of those who drown in the Mediterranean? The deaths of both Palestinians and Israelis matter, and of those whose heads are lopped off not by the gruesome clowns of Daesh mummified in black, but by the full machinery of the Saudi Arabian state which remains an ally we toady to even though it has not taken a single Syrian refugee, won’t let women drive or leave the house unaccompanied, and has people publicly flogged for atheism.
What about gang deaths? Do they not matter because they chose to be in a gang? Did they deserve to die by the sword because they lived by it? Are we confident that being in a gang and social deprivation aren’t at all related? What about deaths of children and the vulnerable, deaths from neglect and deaths from cruelty. Deaths from drug and alcohol addiction. What about deaths from starvation in our own cities? Does it matter that people in the UK are now routinely so poor that they cannot afford to feed themselves, and that a significant proportion of them die of malnutrition as a result? Does it matter more or less than the fact that we have happen to have an issue with testosterone-pumped rude boys from the Syrian desert taking holidays in Europe to take potshots at the populace – or probably more accurately, it seems, with such people being permanently resident here.
In his excellent book The Better Angels of our Nature, about the history of violence, Stephen Pinker cites Audrey Cronin’s research that terrorist groups don’t get what they want. No small terrorist organisation has ever taken over a state, and 94 percent fail to achieve any of their stated aims. They fail to replace their leaders, they morph into guerrilla movements, they suffer from the loss of young firebrands to the pleasures of civilian and family life. Most significantly, they escalate their activity until it loses the sympathy of those who fund them. This was all written in 2013, before the rise of Islamic Dickwads, and in superficial ways, they may seem to contradict it. Haven’t they created a state? Wasn’t that one of their aims? Aren’t they guerrillas as well as terrorist? Haven’t they imported wives to keep their warriors on task? Haven’t they replaced their leader without difficulty?
Whether the long term future of the Islamic State is rosy or not, it remains the case that they can only be helped by the indulgence of public paroxysms of grief, and garment-rending demands that something must be done, from bombing Raqqa to imprisoning clerics. This isn’t really a war of weapons, it’s one of minds. And at the moment, we’re being played for fools.