After an act of evil, silence and solemnity are rarely enough. Even commemoration of the victims, and calls for social stability and solidity, frequently come up short. As attractive, if not more, are demands for action, in extreme cases vengeance, and attacks on those seen to be reacting wrongly or perversely to the tragedy newly witnessed.
Terrorist attacks elicit all the above reactions. Because although terrorist violence has, by its almost daily occurrence, been made almost routine, the visceral feeling it creates – and is intended to create – does not diminish, no matter how often bombings or shootings occur.
Twenty-four hour news, yellow journalism prevalent in newspaper coverage, and social media all build collective pressure. Every attack is reported and generates reaction, creating, for some, a broad, looming sense that the whole world is going to hell. This sense, combined with the immediacy of violence when it befalls a community an observer could call their own, means that every attack, no matter where it occurs, will cause immense strain for some section of a plural society.
This emotional impact is not dissipated by lulls in violence because there are no lulls; the pressure is not reducible or able to be forgotten because, now, when the world is ever-present and personal in pixel form, every act of violence can be stunningly immediate.
Amid all this tension comes a release of some kind. It can be found in reacting, or more accurately overreacting, to how others respond to these moments of horror. Often these responses are over disagreements of emphasis, with ad hoc factions defending restrictive binary distinctions. Whether white perpetrators of violence should be described as terrorists, say, or whether it is appropriate to reference the mental health of attackers in such discussions of violence.
These arguments are fraught and carried out, often, with sweeping reference to trends which are either unestablished or hardly evidenced in the complainant’s case. That doesn’t matter. When an argument of this sort becomes common enough, its statements and counters widely enough known, the discussions of terror which take place after attacks are shadow boxing: choreographed in advance of any bomb going off or bullet being fired.
This is unhelpful in the extreme. And an example of the same came in the widespread overreaction to a piece in the Washington Post, which attempted to make some sense of the global reaction to the terrorist attack this month in Sri Lanka, on Christians who were observing Easter in the city’s churches.
The piece pointed out that far-right leaders from France, Germany and the wider world focussed unduly on what had happened in Sri Lanka. They had not just mentioned it, in line with being political animals in an age when comment must be ubiquitous and instantaneous; these operatives had actively and pointedly turned the terrorist attack to reinforce their message and their cause.
Reaction to the mere publication of this analysis from the Washington Post was notable and blinkered. Critics suggested the newspaper was eliding the act of terrorist violence. This was not correct. Elsewhere it covered, perfectly adequately, the violence and the search – later concluded when ISIS claimed the attacks – for the attackers’ allegiances and ambitions.
But that was forgotten. The familiar arguments began to surface: that politicians and the media did not want to refer to Christians, preferring to call them ‘Easter worshippers’; that the press underreports Islamist violence in favour of advancing an angle concerning the far-right; and, for good measure, a sprinkling of comments from the other ‘side’ of this equation, suggesting that Western media stokes the far-right so much that, in writing about its tactics, journalists are doing the radical right’s own work. All of these are untrue, and wildly distorting.
This is not meant as a full-throated defence of this particular piece of journalism, other than to say that what the Washington Post reported is both substantially true and worth noting.
The Western far-right plays up stories found across the world to suggest that, globally, whites are losing out and being subject to marginalisation, ‘replacement’, or even genocide. It has turned what could be a series of stories about unconnected murders in South Africa into a minor global cause celebre. Its move towards the rhetoric of ‘defending’ Christianity, particularly when the faith and its adherents seem to be in legitimate peril, is visible and deserves to be observed.
Far-right figures and those near to them ideologically thrive on turning individual incidents from anywhere in the world into global rallying points. This is real; and it is worth commenting upon, regardless of whether it interferes with how some would prefer to guide responses to acts of barbarism and terror down familiar routes.
This piece was originally published in Perspectives, the Quilliam journal.