Not in my name

I grieve for the victims of last week’s despicable acts of hatred in Beirut and Paris. We who were not directly involved can but try to imagine the horror of it.

As we empathise, it makes us feel insecure. It makes us long for safety. Our leaders know this, so they look for strong words to reassure us as they act with certainty to deflect criticism from the sharp and eager tongue of the 24-hour news cycle.

“Now is not the time for doubt because we are at war,” they say as they rush to conclusions and load their planes with bombs. A strong deterrent. That will teach “them”.

But as the military retaliation gains pace, the memorials will be concluded and the outpourings of grief via hashtags will stop trending. The news cycle will find something else to feed on. Where will we be then, when the tough realities must be faced? Realities about broken communities and the influence of zealots and failed schools and alienation and decades worth of misspent foreign policy?

Where will we be then, whilst this bloodthirsty vengeance gets carried out in our name? When genuine targets get mixed up with innocent bystanders as drones fire and misfire their irrevocable judgement? Will we take time to grieve these tragedies? Or will we be back to our stressful jobs, busy social schedules and Netflix binges? Back to our comfort zones, slumbering until the next time our broken world shakes our sense of security?

Nothing will change until we go beyond the initial shock and grief to ask the difficult questions: what is this ecosystem that supports the manufacture and distribution of guns and ammunition? How do these instruments of death end up in terrorists’ hands? How do we deal with a lack of religious enlightenment, beyond just wishing for it – how do we actually help people see through their theocratic blindness? Is it realistic to expect that governments do all of this on our behalf or do we have a direct role to play too? There are no straight lines – only a confusing maze of connections. We may be innocent, hard-working people wishing to get on with our lives, but we’re all part of this system. If we’re not involved directly, at the very least we’re paying taxes to governments who do the bidding on our behalf.

There’s no doubt that these were the acts of violent criminals who deserve every bit of condemnation they’re receiving right now, but those criminals appeared on the streets of Paris and Beirut within a context. To ignore it, is to live in a wilful ignorance that manifests in our failure to talk about underlying problems. A failure to recognise that condemning acts of violence should be the start of a process, not the end. A shame on all of us for failing to say: not in my name. No violence. It doesn’t matter whether it is driven by madmen, spurred on by zealots, ignited by xenophobes or perpetrated by states: violence begets violence. And this happens not in my name.

We may feel powerless to make a difference right away, but collectively – and over time – we have immense power. We can vote for wiser governments and take care over how and where we spend our money – because how we behave as consumers lies at the root of the power structures we see all around us; we can build better relationships with our neighbours by offering our time and skills to make an impact. We can find the time. We have the capacity to accept that it may take generations to be fixed, but that that finding a solution starts with each of us doing something – acting despite the lack of immediate results. We can do all of these things if we care to try.

As people in Paris and Beirut come to terms with the loss of life and destruction in their cities, it is my duty to say about these reactionary counter-attacks that at best they will achieve a pyrrhic victory. They will – eventually – lead to more violence. I know that IS does terrible things. They’re uncivilised, indiscriminate psychopaths. There have been times in history when there was no choice but to take up arms against psychopaths and nefarious tyrants. It’s easy to look at the current situation to conclude that this requires the same response. Too easy. The truth is that this enemy has no defined dictator (other than the one we tacitly support!), no definition of sides and no evidence that “surgical” air strikes can even be effective.

I hear the arguments of experts saying that we’ve no choice but to strike militarily; that it’s the only option in the short term whilst we work on “soft power” in the long term. Maybe they’re right, but we’ve heard this all before and we never seem to get to the “long-term” bit. This makes it seem like madness – madness as Einstein defined it: doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results.

Sadly, I can’t stop this from happening right now but I can say this to my own government, as they start whipping up the rhetoric of war: in my name, you may find the collaborators to put them on trial and unleash our civilised forces of court justice. In my name you may improve education, economic equality, fight discrimination, build communities, free people from the ghettos to help them integrate and devise new strategies to scupper xenophobia and hate speech.

In may name you may also stop selling arms to dictators, and you may stop devising myopic foreign policies for tactical reasons; you may show people across the globe that we believe in one, unified human race who share this planet.

But this short-sighted retaliatory violence? Not ever. Not in my name.

Inspired by Sebastião Salgado, his breathtaking work and Salt of the Earth – the powerful documentary that examines his life dedicated to documenting pain and beauty.