Does society make it difficult for a survivor of political violence to stand up for Peace?
Earlier this year The Foundation for Peace held a number of events to mark not only 20 years since the tragic events which led to its creation, but also to celebrate the 20 years of working for Peace; and how we can look forward to building a more peaceful future. One of the events was a conference called ‘The cost of Peace’ among the speakers was Jason McCure, and a quote from him has stuck in my head ever since.
‘Next time a survivor stands up; we should stand up alongside them’
In the same week, were press reports which featured an interview with a senior anti-terrorism police officer. In them, he stated that each year since 7/7, an attack of the same size and scale had been prevented. Initially, I was terrified by this; though it wasn’t a surprise to me. Seeing it online provoked many of my fears and brought back emotions from 7 (almost 8) years ago. I never want to see a day like that again.
Sadly since then, we have seen the awful attack at the Boston Marathon, and also the very sad event in Woolwich this week. Although smaller in scale than London, both of these events resulted in a tragic loss of life; and also witnessed quite literally a change in the way political violence is reported on – the combination of smart phones and real time 24 hour news footage.
The result of this isn’t only the availability of video footage which can be used as propaganda to further the cause of the extremists responsible, but also a much more ‘speculative’ style of reporting by media channels in the immediate aftermath and confusion following these events. This speculation is often unhelpful, and promotes the fear and hatred the people responsible wish to create.
Also this year we have seen the cross party agreement of the Royal Charter, as a result of the Leveson Enquiry. What followed was a cry from the British press that this was in some way an infringement of their rights, censorship, even as some claimed, state censorship of the press. I don’t believe it is.
I hope that as well as protecting people at a vulnerable time when they are currently hunted by the press; it may also minimise the amount of hateful propaganda I read in today’s newspapers. When you read an interview, you are very unlikely to be presented with the whole interview. You are even more unlikely to know whether the interviewee felt bullied into agreeing to the interview. What you will read are snippets, perhaps half sentences, cleverly chosen and strung together to convey the meaning, not of the interviewee, but to convey the opinion or angle which the reporter seeks to convey. When you read the newspapers, you do not read the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. You read an ‘angle’ or spin; an angle set by the agenda of the publication concerned. I know this, as it’s happened to me. I have also been hounded and door stepped by the press during the darkest and most distressing moments in my life.
As yet, no members of the national Press have signed up to agree to the voluntary Royal Charter. Instead they have proposed their own media charter which does not fulfil all of the requirements of campaign group Hacked Off and so we are at stalemate; and I am wondering if we will ever see agreement or a change in the reporting regulations as the Leveson Enquiry set out to achieve.
As a survivor of an act of political violence, one of the things I have struggled with the most is society’s expectation of hatred from me. I am a disappointment to the vengeful society we live in. I do not apologise for that.
Reading media reports and indeed live news broadcasts following Woolwich and the death of Drummer Rigby I couldn’t help but be worried, very worried about the impact Islamaphobia is having on society. Fuelling hatred, fuelling racism and political violence; not only from the very tiny minority within the Muslim community holding extreme views, who feel further alienated by such poisonous rhetoric; but it also fuels hatred from other groups. Islamaphobia is fuelling hatred, particularly from far Right Wing groups such as the EDL. This threat, just as volatile as the threat from alienated Muslim communities is just as real, and just as potentially dangerous, and it’s growing, and potentially deadly.
Opposing Extremist groups need each other – they counter argue each other. The events in Woolwich fuel the arguments of groups such as the EDL, and in turn the actions of the EDL fuel the arguments of Islamic Extremists; and so the cycle continues. Speculative and inflammatory press reporting of both of these groups furthers both of their arguments; and feeds into the recruitment of isolated individuals who are at risk of joining either extremist group.
The day Osama Bin Laden was killed, the first phone call I received was from a member of the press asking ‘if I was happy at the news.’ No I was not. To quote the far more eloquent than me Martin Luther King ‘I cannot take pleasure in the death of another man’
Frequently I have been asked ‘how do I feel about Muslims now?’ I have been asked this question by people of all faiths and people of no faith; I have also been asked by Muslims. From my Muslim friends I’ve seen them brace themselves ready for a response of hatred, waiting for a hurtful or insulting remark. I’ve seen the look of relief and surprise when that’s not my response. From those who don’t follow an Islamic faith, I’ve been confronted by the expectation of hatred, then confusion, surprise, and even criticism for not feeling vengeful or hateful.
What purpose would it serve if I was? Would I have a healthy life if I was filled with hatred for people who share the same religion as the person who hurt me? Who would benefit if I did live up to the expectation of hatred? Not me. Not you.
I am sure it would help marginalised groups at each end of the spectrum feel vindicated in their cause. They may even believe it would give their cause a mandate. I am a disappointment; their violence or potential violence is not in my name. Their cause is not in my name.
I am a victim in the eyes of many, a survivor of political violence, and I am standing for peace. I stand against all violence, no matter what the cause, no matter who the perpetrator’s. I do not support violence from groups you would call terrorists, nor do I support State sponsored violence.
I may not have a degree in peace-building or international relations, but what I have learnt from my experience, is that if one group, or very small part of the group take to violent measures , then other groups opposed in opinion to the first group, are more likely to also consider violent action. Separating people into ‘groups and then alienating those groups, causes and fuels conflict – we focus on the differences rather than the fact we are all human beings, living in the same place. This further fuels the desire for violence, and before you know it, you have a conflict which will take generations to subside.
If you have read my previous blogs, you will be aware that I have met with and spoken with two former combatants. It has been a very powerful experience for me. From them, I have learnt a lot. I do struggle with what my friends have done in the past, but respect them immensely for the men they are now, and the work they now do. The two things are linked – their work for peace would not exist but for their violent past. To be able to accept their peace, it is my responsibility to also accept their violent past. I am sure many of you reading this, will not see these two men as my equals, but they are. It’s much easier for society to demonise them, fully and completely, and to place a greater value on my life, and opinions, than theirs. It is easier to label people as ‘all good’ or ‘all bad’ but I don’t agree that’s the case. We all have our good points, we all have our flaws.
I share with my two friends more than I share with members of society whose life has not been impacted by political violence. Emotionally, we have shared a space unknown to the majority, questions, experiences and emotions many people cannot imagine. I now understand that had I grown up with the same set of circumstances and experiences as they did, I cannot guarantee that I would not have been drawn into that violence myself. That I would not have felt compelled to ‘do something’ as I do (peacefully) now, and that if I had grown up in an environment where violence was common place, that ‘something’ could have been violence, rather than peace building. I have heard first hand their ‘whys’ their options and their choices. Was my experience on the number 30 bus worse than what they experienced as they grew up? I don’t think it was. As an adult, I suffered one moment of extreme danger, a moment engrained in the nation’s psyche; they endured years of living in a violent community during their formative years.
I have spoken to them about the very understandable human desire for revenge, and in doing so, for the first time questioned why I have not responded in that way.
What makes one person seek revenge, when another may chose not to?
One of my friends then said to me one of the most thought provoking statements I have ever had directed towards me
‘You might yet’
That one sentence made me question everything I had experienced in the last seven years. On the playing field of peace, there was now no doubt we were on an equal footing. The words ‘you might yet’ disarmed me, I felt vulnerable at hearing the possibility that I may yet chose revenge or violence. Had it been said by anyone without that same history, I doubt the effect on me would have been so profound; it may have even been dismissed.
I had presumed the time when I might wish for ‘revenge’ had passed, unnoticed. I had chosen my response and that was one of non-violence. I hadn’t realised that actually, it’s a decision I will have to keep on making, it’s an ever present choice… although I doubt it, I have to acknowledge one day I could make a different choice. The choice I have made so far isn’t a life time guarantee as I had presumed. The notion that it is something I may desire in the future, that it’s an on-going question, had not occurred to me; and was a terrifying prospect.
Just as my friends once chose violence, and now chose non-violence, there is the possibility I may chose violence over peace in the future. If they can change their minds – I potentially could too. On deeper reflection it also taught me that I share far more with two former paramilitaries than the differences between us. We are more the same than I, and society at large feels comfortable acknowledging. In working for peace we are equals; in fact I would go so far as to say they have a far more powerful voice for peace than I.
The three of us have had to deeply question the use of violence, its purpose and effectiveness to promote a political objective. My friends have had it much tougher than me in many senses, they have had to question themselves deeply in order to separate their violence from their political aims; they had to betray their violence without betraying their political values; they had to leave the people around them who still supported violence, and in doing so have also been deeply criticised. In fact, it also put their lives at risk; as much at risk as when they were actively engaged in violence.
My peace building may not have put a price on my head, but I have had to leave behind former friends who have expressed politically violent views; and in doing so was deeply criticised by our mutual friends. They told me as a ‘peace builder’ I should tolerate these views no matter how hurtful and disturbing I found them, no matter what the impact to my mental health was; in truth I realised it was all just a little inconvenient for them. They were happy to stand with me a victim, only when it was a comfortable and convenient place for them to stand.
What do you think of when someone says the word ‘terrorist?’ a faceless group, or a balaclava or indeed burka clad anonymous figure, evil through and through? I know that’s the image most people reading this will think. It’s one of the reasons I am actually very reluctant to use the word, and very rarely do. It’s such a loaded word. Can you, as you read this define clearly and eloquently the difference between a ‘terrorist’ and a ‘freedom fighter’ for instance? I guess you are now checking Wikipedia or googling both words… if you can be bothered that is. I’m sure if you have, you are probably none the wiser than 5 minutes ago; you are possibly even more confused.
What if I decided to ‘live up’ to the expectation of our hateful society?
What would happen if I did decide I wanted revenge? Would you support me then?
I hope not; so why not show survivor’s more support and understanding when they stand up for peace?
Over the last 5 years I have met many people affected by the Irish conflict; for some, their history goes back to before I was born, yet they are still living and battling with the after effects today. There will be no life sentences for the people who hurt me; they decided to take their own lives as they took the lives of others. Those of us who survived do have life sentences to serve – the loss of a family member, the loss of limbs perhaps; other injuries may heal with time, but we will always have the emotional scars; some of us have PTSD. On the surface, to the outside world, some of us may have been able to continue with the lives we lived before that day; but inside we have all been altered.
Seven and a half years ago, some people said to me ‘your life will never be the same’ I thought they were being melodramatic; but gradually, overtime you do start to understand, you are changing. Things are different. You gain new perspective. The girl I was 8 years ago would not be sat writing a blog about the media portrayal of political violence at 6am on a Saturday morning. Like you, I probably wouldn’t even have considered it. But here I am, at 6am on a Saturday morning, drinking coffee, deep in thought, trying to make sense of the conundrum. Worried enough that the way political violence is reported on is adding to the problem; that I am willing to share my views on it, with the world.
Have we not learnt from my friends who suffered due to the Irish conflict? Some lost their children, others their brother, others were ‘holding a line’ on Bloody Sunday, a line they still do not understand, 40 years later. Have we not learnt from the hundreds of reports of ‘revenge attacks’ we saw on TV in the 70’s 80’s and 90’s?
The Good Friday agreement was signed in 1998, it was supposed to be the end of the conflict; and it has been mostly successful in achieving a more peaceful Ireland. Perpetrators of violence were released from their prison ‘life sentences’ but the emotional life sentences of both ‘victims’ and perpetrators go on. There will be no release from those life sentences.
But, there have been exceptions to the peace; there have been ‘flare-ups.’ Only recently, we saw flag burning which also led to violence. A prison guard was ambushed and shot on the motorway. This happens because the underlying reason for the conflict has not been resolved. The ‘armed struggle’ may have been officially abandoned but victims, survivors, families and ex-combatants are still living their emotional life sentences. There’s still so much work to do to help bring about understanding, to erode the stigma, to establish a robust and resilient peace.
Whilst the press reporting of conflicts focusses on the headline grabbing violence rather than the causes and possible solutions to conflict, the hatred will not only continue, but it will fuel the violence. Sadly, this is the aim of ‘terrorism’ to further divide, to provoke fear – just as the press articles this week have provoked fear in me. Peace does not sell newspapers, but violence does. When you pay your £1 at the news agents, or read the hateful rhetoric online (adding to advertising revenues), you may not be directly funding ‘terrorism’ but you are fuelling the hatred it needs to grow.
Following the Boston attacks, I wrote a piece, which a media contact offered to various National newspapers. As I wrote it, I knew it wasn’t in the style of a newspaper journalist, it was far too reflective, but that it was a really good blog. My media contact edited parts of it to make it more in line with a newspaper article. He wanted me to call the bombers ‘evil’ – I couldn’t do that. I explained it would undermine my peace advocacy. I would never use that phrase in real life, or my peace building, so I could not use that phrase in a newspaper piece. None of the national newspapers used the article. I know this was because it was just too reflective, it was not shocking enough; it was not the type of headline grabbing hatred fuelled piece which sold newspapers.
Perhaps this was the best result, I was able to publish my unedited version on this blog. It may have been read by far less people than it would have been if published in a newspaper, but it was the original piece written in my own language – language which did not further add to the problem. I hope the newspapers are able to change their language and speculative reporting style in the future, so that they can become part of the solution rather than continuing to be part of the problem.
Peace doesn’t sell – and that’s part of the problem. Bombings and stabbings sell newspapers, peace doesn’t. In the last week I have read so many press articles which inflame the situation, and are likely to provoke anger in many. Only today on Sunday, have the media started to question the reasons behind extremism, perhaps prompted by the news that the Government are creating a new Cabinet level task force to look at this. Having read many of the articles in todays press, across a spectrum of publications, I still find their language and positioning unhelpful; to the point I can see many are only furthering the cause of extreme groups on both sides of the spectrum.
It’s almost eight years since July 7th, yet so little progress has been made in understanding the causes of extremism – and only when we have a better understanding can we start to resolve those issues and make real progress.
Whilst the creation of the Task force is a step in the right direction, a Cabinet level task force isn’t going to resolve the reasons why people become extremists – only peace building at a community based level is going to do that; and funding at that level is virtually non-existent. Peace doesn’t sell; corporates don’t want to sponsor it; and as its results cannot be measured other than ‘we haven’t had a terrorist attack’ it’s also extremely difficult to get government budget for such programmes. How do you measure you have effectively prevented someone who may have become an extremist from becoming one? Community based anti-extremism programmes are far and few between, and desperately underfunded, but could do so much more if only funding were available. Yet millions are spent on research at a Government or Academic level; and indeed on security services trying to ‘catch’ people who have already developed extreme views and are preparing for violence. When those security services fail, the results are catastrophic as we saw on Thursday. As the mechanism for political violence moves more towards smaller groups or individuals, its even more difficult for the security services to detect, and so preventing extremism becomes more and more important.
Seven years ago, after I had climbed from the wreckage of the number 30 bus, my greatest fear was for the hatred it could provoke, and that fear has not gone away; it is greater than ever. I read the ‘news papers’ today, and that is what I see growing. The journalists feeding this hatred are ‘terrorists’ in their own ways, and so are the people buying and reading those articles.
The people who hurt me wanted to fill me – and you with hatred, are we really willing to give them what they wanted?
If I do not stand for peace, I would be giving them what they wanted; I would be joining their cause.
While society expects me to be filled with hatred, they are willing me to join the people who hurt me. Is that really what you want?
Next time a victim stands up; we should stand up alongside them.
Why is that so difficult?
Copyright Lisa French
I’m looking forward to hearing your opinion…