Gary Day

July 29, 2005

The inhumanity of suicide bombers should make us see that we need to start acknowledging the humanity of all people

I was in a meeting about mentoring when the news broke. Four explosions in London. We opted for an early lunch so people could phone friends, family and partners who were in the capital that day. They were safe, but for others time would stop and when it started again each tick would remind them of a bomb.

The worst terror attack on the British mainland destroyed many more lives than those whose blackened body parts lay smoking on the torn-up Tube. Who had done it and why? What possible reason could there be for such carnage? White-faced, someone confided that her students had been approached by extremists. Or so she had heard. Perhaps it was true, perhaps not. This was the time of rumours.

We needed some explanation for this terrible event. And so for the next few days we scoured newspapers, listened to the radio and watched television, hoping that life is not senseless, that there are reasons for things, even the most awful events.

The photographs of the dead smile out at us from newspapers. They had names, they had lives, they were loved. And so, too, were the Iraqi dead.

All 24,865 of them and counting. But to us they are just statistics.

Another day, another bomb. We get used to hearing about it. This is a world where children ask for sweets and are blown to bits by someone who believes in God. It's horrific, but what can you do? History is made by bastards.

Life moves on. We may be moral beings, but we have to deal with more pressing matters than murder in another country. For a start, there's that time sheet to be completed. "Please indicate what percentage of your time was spent on teaching, research and administration."

And then, one day, it happens here, in liberal, multicultural Britain.

You're going to work. You're thinking about what you have to do. You're looking forward to the weekend. You reflect on your relationships. You're interested by an item in the newspaper. Something makes you smile. All this at once. The muddle of being alive. And then you're not. It's over. For ever. Because a stranger believed that blowing you to pieces would earn him a place in paradise. Or perhaps he and his friends had a more noble motive for destroying so many lives. They wanted to protest against the treatment of Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan. And what better way to make people understand the conditions in those countries than to recreate them here?

The recently bereaved now appreciate what it's like to lose a loved one; to recover the body but not to recognise the remains. So much more effective than marching or staging a pop concert, don't you think? My failure to be sufficiently sensitive to the sufferings of others would be remedied if only I could find God. Then I could identify with the young man from Luton who was "angry at the West for grieving the 56 who died in London (when) I've been grieving the death of thousands of children in Palestine, Chechnya, Kashmir and Iraq".

As it is, I can only respond to what is close to home. Even then I'm not sure how to put it into words. Living in a largely visual culture, we have to guard against suffering becoming a spectacle, an entertainment instead of a tragedy. And then there is so much of the banal and the bloody in modern art that a ripped-open bus could easily be mistaken for a piece of sculpture.

Where is the idiom that reflects our revulsion at random slaughter? Where can we look for answers? It is hard to harm anyone if you have seen them as a real person, rather than as a representative of some creed or ideology.

The state of the language is part of the problem. Everything from the vapid formulations of management-speak to the crass titillation of cable TV conspires to reduce fleshy human beings to flat abstractions. We need a language revolution, one that revives the particularity of personhood, that puts grit in the oiled machines of politics and religion. Above all, we must carry on the Enlightenment project. It's no good saying the terrorists were misguided about Islam because that implies there is a true interpretation of it. There isn't. The idea that there is a correct understanding of holy books has been a cause of wars over the centuries.

We need to understand God less and religion more. Who knows why the terrorists did what they did? We can try to rationalise their dismembering of 56 people, but the fact that our reasoning will always fall short in this matter is a reminder that, as a species, we enjoy cruelty and relish killing. Until we confront that truth, they'll be lots more bombs.

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English at De Montfort University.

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