The news comes at us all too fast these days.
It’s strange to think, amidst Grenfell Tower, handwringing with the DUP, and an abashed Brexit on the trudge towards its distant rest, that a little over a month ago a bomb went off in Manchester Arena and twenty-three people were killed; and that exactly one month prior to this again, a bus was driven across London Bridge to the effect of eight fatalities. It’s strange to think that far back. Ours is a retentive weakness.
It all comes at you too fast – and the hundreds injured in those two terrorist attacks are forgotten the moment the next tragedy strikes, with hundreds more trapped in an inferno high-rise building, and all the while the escalator of politics goes on in seemingly streamlined linearity, while, underground, the grindingly circular truth. In order to avoid parochial obsessions and the fast and jejune political analysis that accompanies it, I think enough time has elapsed since the London Bridge Attack that it might be worth a snapshot revisit.
While not quite going viral, a video entered the etherweb in the days that followed the attack. The video was taken by a man named James Yates who was at a bar when the attack happened (the video can be viewed online here via LBC).
In the video, in medias res chaos, police enter the scene and are soon heard shouting “get down.” Then a man is heard calling the name “Tom” and everybody hits the deck, before, somewhere on the floor, comes a shout: “fucking Muslim cunts.” Then, quietly, perhaps the camera holder himself, perhaps someone else close by, a voice says, quite calmly: “Don’t shout that you fucking idiot, it’s not Muslims.”
When I first saw this it struck me as a moment in which something large was condensed in microcosm. The moment when the panicked, vulgar, crass, fearfully delayed reaction of “fucking Muslim cunts” is followed by a calm, well-thought, sober, and this time instant reaction to the original delayed reaction, that of “Don’t shout that you fucking idiot, it’s not Muslims.” The first thing that struck me was that, however much we sympathise with the latter and not the former speaker (Muslims are not responsible en mass for the actions of one Muslim, it’s patently ludicrous), if taken literally what the first man shouted was not at all fucking idiotic. The execration was natural. It has been proven that it was a Muslim perpetrator. And Khalid Masood was a cunt.
So what of the reaction. “Don’t shout that you fucking idiot.” Well said – nothing good comes of shouting such a thing. However, he goes on to say, “it’s not Muslims.” Really? Strictly speaking he’s right, the plural in this case is incorrect. Reviewed, however, it is obvious that this was not the sense in which he was speaking, he clearly refers more generally to islamophobia then he is referring to the attack in which he finds himself. After all, he surely knew even in that moment of terror that statistically the chances were that it was indeed an Islamic attack.
In the aftermath of the attack, Donald Trump tweeted this: “We need to be smart, vigilant and tough. We need the courts to give us back our rights. We need the travel ban as an extra level of safety.” Interestingly, this tweet received near universal condemnation online, because instead of offering prayers Trump was said to be using the terror attack for political gain. I would firstly point out that prayers are yet to be proven effective at defusing bombs, but of even more interest is that in this much hated tweet Trump cites his own solution to the problem of Islamic terrorism. A ban on Muslims. The ban is stupid, crude, inhuman, anti-legal and un-American; and yet, however much I detest it, I recognise that it is a solution that links Islam (perverted or otherwise) to Muslims. It will do nothing but make the problem worse, and yet it remains the only game in town as long as nobody else is proposing solutions to Islamic terror. And how can solutions be proposed, when we refuse to identify the problem as a problem in our political discourse, when in our liberal certainties we can strum across our metal typewriter, with such cool unheated detachment, the words, “It’s not Muslims.” It’s not all Muslims, no, but it is some Muslims, isn’t it.
The two speakers in this video have similarities. Firstly they both lack nuance in their own distinct ways. Secondly, both men did not intend to be heard. This struck me at the time and it strikes me still; that despite the volume of the first man he shouts in a way that is very much aware of the distance separating him from his would be killer. The second man likewise seems aware that he is within earshot of the man whom he would criticise, and he almost whispers his rebuttal. In defense of the second man, it would have been ridiculous to shout across the room. And yet in tandem both voices reveal the intellectual cowardice of this debate.