Appearing today in the Phoenix Magazine.
Appearing today in the Phoenix Magazine.
Appearing today in the Phoenix Magazine.
I finally went to a doctor, something I hadn’t done in years. Why not? In case I was ill of course. This is what stops people (OK, men) seeking help – the fear that we might need it. If you went there to get health booster shots or something we’d turn up every week. But to discover that you might really have a flaw, a weakness… Well, many men would sooner die. Many do.
I had a strange little spot on my leg. Every time it seemed to grow bigger – which was about every time I looked at it – I thought Oh no, should have seen a doctor before now. I’ve probably left it too late. I’m gonna die.
And then I’d ignore it again, for I am a manly man.
And thanks to getting myself a fantastic new phone for Christmas, I’d discovered another way I might be going. This is not a spin they put on it when they promote these health and fitness apps, is it? Get the new BitFit, find out you’re gonna die! My one has a doobry that can measure heartbeat. It tells you what is “normal”, and what is not. Mine was not.
But by using my kneecap for leverage I finally got myself through a surgery door. And I’m so glad I did. The doc was nice and soon put my mind at rest. Yes that heart rate is quite elevated, she explained. But this means you’re badly unfit, not that It’s About To Blow. The thing on your leg you thought might be a death sentence for the last few years? That’s an old insect bite.
Well, she used words like “tumour”, “cyst” and “fibroid”, but thankfully it had nothing to do with cancer or cystic fibrosis. It was just a scary name for a weird kind of scar which, despite being in Latin, is perfectly harmless.
And she gave me anti-inflammatories to deflate the knee. As I suspected it was just a wrenching of the cruciate ligament, which in layman’s terms is the thing that keeps the lower end of your leg attached to the top end. I was very relieved to hear that surgery is not usually needed for this. Seriously, there are countless parts of my anatomy I would sooner have cut with sharp knives than my knees. But just in case, I’m on a waiting list to see a specialist too. And with the state of our medical service, there’s every chance that I’ll be completely healed before my appointment! Excellent.
Speaking of healing… It’s a week since the Charlie Hebdo massacre now. I wonder when the healing will begin there, or what form it will take. Nothing that’s happened since inspires much optimism, does it? We’re still going through the inflammatory reaction. A display of formation hypocrisy by the world’s leaders, evil and brainless “revenge” attacks on mosques, and of course promises of tough new laws right across Europe.
What, because the murderers took advantage of a loophole in the current anti-murder legislation? Do they think if a law is broken that means it wasn’t strong enough? It’s a kind of superstition, a fetishisation.
“Terrorism happened, we must make laws!”
“But terrorism is already illegal.”
“Well then we’ll make some other things illegal!”
And so there will be new powers of surveillance, new crimes of saying things that might lead to terrorism – the attack on public speech balanced by an attack on private speech. Perhaps it’s like the man with the hammer; for legislators, a problem is a thing that isn’t illegal yet.
The best response to terrorism is to do what you were going to do anyway.
And in particular, atrocity that touches you personally in some way. Carried out against other cartoonists, other satirists. Of course I am going to feel that more closely than the murder of say doctors or teachers or soldiers. It is only human.
But it would not be right to come to a different conclusion or demand a different response just because I feel it more personally. Maybe I shouldn’t even be writing this, considering that I haven’t stopped to lament any other atrocities recently. However there are more reasons to speak out here than the merely personal.
So what sane and just responses are available to us? Not many. In an understandable show of emotion, mourners are protesting the right to freedom of speech. But while a violent attack on any form of media is censorship, the right to free speech was never really the issue. When Charlie Hebdo decided to republish the “Danish cartoons”, there was no serious question of it being illegal. The question was whether it was justified or wise.
Nor do I think did the killers believe that they were going to defeat free speech. They must be as aware as anyone that their attack is likely to provoke more insults against Muhammad than ever before. The sort of person who wants to blame everything on Islam is going to do so twice as loudly now – to show how acts of terror cannot influence them in any way…
I’d say “And that’s exactly what the killers wanted”, except – I wonder if the real motivation here was even that sophisticated. To be honest, this feels more like an act of crude vengeance. They took offence on behalf of an idea and attempted to murder a magazine. Uncontrolled, almost infantile rage, without objective beyond the emotional release of smashing the face that laughed at you.
How do you react rationally to the irrational? You can’t. The only right response is to not react. Neither bend nor strike back. You cannot appease blind rage. You cannot avenge it either.
As any decision taken right now will be a bad one, we should take this time to contemplate. The West’s relationship with the Middle East is going seriously down the crapper. Recent history – decades now – seems like a litany of horrific acts from both directions, with absolutely no indication of it de-escalating. Does it have to be this way, or can we change our hearts and minds – on both sides?
Some creativity is badly needed here.
One day I’m going to take a stand against the division of time into arbitrary regular periods. It’s a delusion anyway. The periods aren’t regular – I’ve noticed throughout my life that they grow consistently shorter. A year is a trivial amount of time now. On current trends, by the time I’m 80 one will last about as long as a summer’s afternoon did when I was five. No doubt it’s healthy to stop and take mental stock every so often, but marking every single year that comes along feels like indulging them.
But then again, without this end-of-the-year show it could easily have escaped my ephemeral notice that 2011 was an extraordinary one. I doubt if we’ve had so much change – especially so much hopeful change – since at least 1989. In some ways we’ve seen the anti-2001; the greatest act of terrorism was carried out by a Christian extremist, the people fighting for democracy were Muslim. It went a long way towards repairing the damage perpetrated during the miserable presidency of George W. Bush.
Except of course that done to the world economy, which is still utterly buggered. At least people rioted in the UK. Yeah, I see that as a positive. If we create a society where the rich can blow it all gambling yet somehow still stay rich, meanwhile telling the poor that they have to be poorer now, then it is a good thing that some people say “OK, we’re not playing by these rules anymore”. This isn’t justifying theft, it’s pointing out that societies are made out of people and you can’t keep taking the piss.
Similarly I think the riots against austerity in the Eurozone were on balance a good thing. I’d sooner peaceful civil disobedience like the Occupy movements, but a riot is the next best thing. Certainly, either is better than the supine attitude we seem to have adopted in Ireland.
This then is my greatest hope and fear for 2012. How will we channel our anger? Here in Galway, city councillors are trying to close the little Occupy encampment that we have on the grounds that it’s bad for business. That is how much our politicians care for actual politics. Every challenge to the system in the last ten years, from organised terrorism to music downloading, has been used by the powerful as an excuse to give themselves yet more power over the individual. There are real threats in the world to democratic capitalism, it is true. The greatest is from undemocratic capitalism.
The 9/11 attack was brilliantly simple in its planning. All it required was a little organisation, and the mental capability to slaughter thousands of innocent strangers. Brilliantly successful too; its objective, to foster conflict between the West and Islam, seems to have been largely realised. Yet ten years on, a significant proportion of people insist on believing a far more complex explanation: That 9/11 was faked, not an attack but an inside job.
I say a significant proportion; it’s far from a majority, though any time at all spent on YouTube might persuade you otherwise. (One wide-ranging poll did find that less than half respondents thought that Islamists were responsible, but that survey included many people in Islamic countries naturally unwilling to be associated with the atrocity.) A 2007 Zogby poll (PDF) sponsored by conspiracy theorists themselves found that something approaching a quarter of Americans thought that elements within their government were complicit in the attack. This figure has probably dropped somewhat since Bush and Cheney left office peaceably, but there is still a sizeable minority – of Americans – who believe the US government was complicit in or even responsible for the most deadly attack on America in its history. Why?
I say ‘insist on believing’ because it takes an effort of will to decide that America was responsible for the attack on America. Even the ‘moderate’ version – that forces within the US government were merely complicit in the attack – asks us to believe that members of a Republican administration were willing to stand by and allow a devastatingly effective attack by genuine terrorists on the heart of America’s commercial interests, because they believed they could gain by it in some way. More ambitious theorists would have us believe that they blew the towers up with carefully set demolition charges, then flew planes full of passengers into them merely as a distraction.
Why do so many people, both Americans and their enemies, persist in this? Well, they have one telling thing in common: Both need to believe in the strength of America. For its enemies, the idea that a tiny terrorist outfit can wreak such destruction simply doesn’t fit with the image of a Great Satan.
By the same token, the Americans who think their own government destroyed the World Trade Center in order to make war and profit are patriots. They still believe that the one power on Earth capable of inflicting such terrible damage on the US could only be the US itself. These conspiracy theorists are not cynics. On the contrary, they have faith in America.
That’s the front of tomorrow’s Sun. Needless to say, it’s a Murdoch paper. What, you may wonder, is the evidence they have that links Norway’s massacres with Islamic extremism? The main clue would probably be that Al Qaeda sells more papers.
The little actual evidence so far seems to point to a home-grown rather than pro-Islamic terrorist threat. Not that it couldn’t be both of course, but several Norwegian news sources – TV2 for example – has stated that the suspect arrested had connections with Norway’s far right. VG, the major Norwegian tabloid that was caught in the blast, says the suspect described himself as ‘nationalist’. It appears that he was an outspoken opponent of immigration and of Muslims. So it may well turn out that this was actually an act of anti-Islamic terrorism. The irony would then be almost too much to bear.
But you wonder, does understanding the political motivation behind this actually matter? The most salient feature of an ideology that thinks it’s all right to kill people at random is that it thinks it’s all right to kill people at random. There isn’t much ground for further discussion. We may as well say that the attack in Oslo was carried out by The Evil Ones and leave it at that.
At what point can we just declare that the terrorists have won and let them get on with running things? Almost every day brings them new victories. I’m not talking about murders and bombings, those are merely weapons. To defeat a democratic society you make it turn on itself. And so a stunning victory was achieved this week in the courts of England, when a man was criminalized for making a joke on Twitter.
Perhaps I should begin by explaining what Twitter is, as many – including it seems the judge in this case – still have no idea. Twitter is confusing to some because it doesn’t easily fit into the categories of public medium or private communication. On one hand it’s very public, in that anyone who joins can post remarks on it. In another sense it is quite private; your posts are (normally) only seen by people who choose to see them, and therefore know who you are.
Paul Chambers was planning a trip to Belfast to see a friend when he heard that his (oddly named) local airport had been shut down by last winter’s bad weather. “Crap!” he wrote, “Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!” Now that wasn’t a very funny joke, but it is quite obvious that it was meant in jest, as a way to vent his frustration. And yet he now has a criminal record – which in turn has destroyed his career as an accountant – for “sending, by a public communications network, a message that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character”.
Clearly ‘menacing’ is the word at issue here. And clearly it was not menacing, because (a) it was patently not intended to be, (b) menaces are generally sent to the person or persons you are trying to menace, not to your friends, and (c) terrorists never preface their threats with the word “Crap”.
It is also clear that this law was not intended to criminalize casual speech. Judge Jonathan Bennett acknowledged this. Yet using his years of carefully honed stupidity, he managed to reach the conclusion that though not meant as a threat by the sender, the fact that it might be misunderstood to be menacing (by whom?) makes it a criminal act. He was satisfied – and these are his exact words – that the message was of a “menacing nature in the context of the time we live in”.
He may as well have said “I must deliberately misconstrue all jokes as serious expressions of intent, because that is what the terrorists have instructed me to do.” He is doing their bidding. By cooperating with their aim of destroying a free society, this judge may as well be a terrorist himself.
I’m not joking here.