I live in one of the West’s epicentres for terrorist attacks, at the confluence of three major railway stations, and along with my family and friends, we have had to live with bombing campaigns all of our adult lives.
On the 7th of September 2005 four Islamist extremists separately detonated three bombs in quick succession aboard underground trains and a fourth exploded on a double-decker bus in Bloomsbury. Fifty-two people were killed and over 700 more were injured in the attacks. I narrowly missed three of the four bombs by a handful of minutes, as my walk to work took me from King’s Cross, where the largest bomb exploded, past the spot where the bus blew up.
My father had been a firewatcher at St Paul’s, and saw bomb fall on London. I had grown up with IRA bomb attacks in central London, and had grown immune to them. In 1999 I narrowly missed a civilian nail-bomb which exploded in our local pub, planted by a homophobic neo-Nazi. The pub, largely gay, was used by everyone in our office, and on that night we decided to go elsewhere at the last moment, missing the explosion by less than five minutes.
An extraordinary thing happens when people are attacked. The social mesh instantly tightens into camaraderie. I think it’s always there, and surfaces during times of duress. We saw people of every faith helping each other during 7/7. London is now the most cosmopolitan city on earth, and its petty tensions evaporate when faced with tragedy. The supporters of Donald Trump must never have seen the results of terrorism up close, otherwise they’d know better.
Terrorists are lonely, embittered, marginalised, and can’t access the kind of strength people find in adversity, so they strike back. Many exist as the by-product of the West’s own attempts to manipulate governments. At the end of the 19th century it was suggested that if we wanted happier lives we should leave countries like Afghanistan alone – but the West meddles for financial gain.
That doesn’t make us the villains. Any religion that’s extreme enough to harm innocents ceases to be a religion at all, and anyone who kills in the name of their religion surrenders his or her faith by doing so. Terrorists are mostly young and powerless, and they’re caught in a paradox. They claim to be acting in a faith which goes to great lengths to publicly disown them, and so they are exposed not as paramilitary ‘terrorist cells’ but as deluded fanatics.
It seems appropriate that one of the most peaceful countries in the world, Norway, is one of the first to have a larger percentage of non-religious residents than religious ones. I’ve grown tired of seeing innocents murdered in the name of religions. IS members clearly haven’t studied history, or they’d know that faith doesn’t take hold by murdering anyone who doesn’t share the same ideology.
Belgium and Paris have proved particularly vulnerable, and now the Far Right will use the latest atrocities to try and stir up further hatred. But change takes generations. That doesn’t mean we should do nothing. Any act that affects the innocent must be utterly condemned. Meanwhile we continue to live with the consequences of our past. Exclusion creates enemies. Unity can only occur when divisions end, and right now, we’re further from that that ever.
Open discussion helps to heal, which is why paramilitary states enforce censorship. Bombing a country back into the stone age can only make matters much worse. The only sane answer that I can see is to agree to condemn terrorism outright, then discuss ways forward built on that common ground.