There is nothing useful in asking a disparate and diverse set of people to solve a problem they have little or no control overby Sameer Rahim / June 5, 2017 / Leave a comment
On Saturday night I was in bed, reading Henry James, when I learnt of the attacks in progress on London Bridge. By chance, the novel was James’s 1886 work The Princess Casamassima, one of his few novels to engage with contemporary political events. The protagonist is Hyacinth Robinson, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat and a dressmaker, who joins a terrorist organisation. James is best known for writing about the love lives of the monied classes, but here he imagines what it was like to be excluded from such hallowed circles. As he writes in his preface, Hyacinth “revolve[s] around” the elite “but at the most respectful of distances and with every door of approach shut in his face.” Among the radicals James detects, in his resonant phrase, a “chronic spiritual inflammation.” They see the world as a perpetual battle between two clearly defined groups—in this case, rich and poor.
I put the book down and read on my phone, with increasing horror, eyewitness accounts from London Bridge. After a terrorist attack we first feel numb and fearful, and then angry. We want someone or something to blame, whether it is Theresa May for cutting police numbers, or UK foreign policy since 9/11 or—as has become wearily predictable over the last 16 years—the religion of Islam. Certainly, that seemed to be the mood Twitter was in.
Soon, though, I had returned to James. The novelist showed me a better way of thinking about such extreme behaviour. In that book, he does something audacious: he extends his great imaginative capacities to include a damaged and unlikeable individual who ends up pledging to carry out a political assassination. Like it or not, empathy is the only way we can begin to understand why such events occur—and the best way to do something about them.
Too often we swiftly shift the blame on to the foreign or “other” aspect of the perpetrators. So the Manchester suicide bomber Salman Abedi, who killed 22 people at a pop concert two weeks ago, was described as “British born” rather than simply British. Abedi’s Libyan background was reiterated as being the key to understanding his atrocious act—even though he grew up in Manchester, went to local schools, spoke English…