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 as his first language and was—as far as we can tell—embedded within a culture of gangs and petty criminality that is familiar to anyone who lives in this country’s cities.
In an eloquent interview shortly after the attack, Dan Hett, brother of one of the victims, 29-year-old Martyn Hett, said that what disturbed him about the attacker was not his foreignness but his closeness. “As a young half-Turkish Mancunian, I’m not worlds away from this guy,” Hett said. The intimacy of killer and the killed—exemplified in the self-annihilating act of suicide bombing—is one key to unlocking Abedi’s corrupted mentality.
Muslim organisation have also become adept at quickly distancing themselves from the terrorists. Even before we knew all the facts, the Muslim Council of Britain issued a condemnation of the London Bridge attack, as it had done with Manchester. Sects as various as the Ahmadiyya and the Salafis took to the streets in Manchester to condemn the attacks. Partly, this was a pragmatic response to those people who would seek to blame all Muslims for terrorism. Mostly, though, it was an emotional response. The anguish and repulsion British Muslims feel towards these attacks are profound. The news that mosques in Manchester are refusing to bury Abedi’s remains—usually a service extended to even the worst criminals—shows the extent of the upset.
And yet there is a risk here. By pushing Abedi and his ilk into the category of “not one of us,” Muslims inadvertently replicate the Islamic State tendency to “takfir,” or apostasise, other Muslims. It may not be our Islam, but Abedi was Muslim and, it appears, acted according to what he considered religious dictates. We have to ask what it is about ordinary Islam—the folk religion of the Muslims who were sitting down to break their fasts with their families on Saturday night, rather than preparing to unleash murder in Borough Market—that holds such little appeal for these angry young men. Perhaps it is its very ordinariness that repels them when they are looking for spectacular narratives of redemptive revenge. We know that radicalisation in mosques is uncommon, and that "hate preachers" and jihadist propaganda often reach individuals online or through networks of friends. But perhaps the liturgical emphasis of most mosques has a part of play, with young men reacting against this in favour of more politically engaged ideologies.
Another risk is that by immediately condemning, Muslims implicitly associate themselves with the attack. From there it is a short step to guilt by association. This morning the communities secretary Sajid Javid wrote in the Times that, “there’s a special, unique burden on the Muslim community” to do something about terrorism. But he’s wrong: he is asking a disparate and diverse set of people to solve a problem they have little or no control over. As I would expect Javid to know, there is no “Muslim community” as such: there are multiple ethnic and sect-based mosques and religious groups. An East African Indian Shia from west London, for example, has very little to do with an East London Sunni radical group in Barking. But once Muslims solely take on this "special burden," when there is another attack—as there will surely be—they will be blamed for not doing more. The risk of hate crimes increase and the possibility of discriminatory measures—some excitable commentators have called for mass internment—becomes more likely. We cannot go down that road.
So what can we do? One important statistic to remember is that in 2016, 40 per cent of the people arrested for terror-related offences in the US were converts to jihadism. The comparable figure for this country is one-fifth. That is a remarkably high percentage. And it indicates that perhaps perceiving this issue as a “Muslim” problem solely is misguided. We need more joined-up thinking.
Here are a few suggested subjects for the "embarrassing conversations" Theresa May wishes us to have: It’s not only members of the royal family who suffer from mental health issues. The Columbine shooters had a well-worked out nihilistic philosophy that is not a million miles from jihadi propaganda. When the government speaks of “perceived grievance” as an indicator of radicalisation, it refuses the possibility that such grievances may be real. Poor relationships with the police affect our ability to garner intelligence on suspects.
The devious whisperings of IS offer a fantasy of domination. But ideology is merely an activating agent; the right factors need to already be present for the mix to become combustible. Plenty of bad ideas exists in the world—in texts both religious and secular—and policing them in the age of the internet is futile. Wouldn't it be better if we tried to imagine the mindset of the terrorist? When I interviewed the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard, he told me that while he could understand the perspective of Anders Breivik—while naturally being horrified by his crimes—he could not do the same for the Paris attackers. I should have asked him why not.
Of Hyacinth Robinson, a man far removed from the plush world of letters, James writes: “There were times when he said to himself that it might very well be his fate to be divided, to the point of torture, to be split open by sympathies that pulled him in different ways.” In those words, James predicted the churning condition of modernity and the violent solutions it can offer.
Empathy, need I add, does not entail sympathy, much less excuse-making. Many people reading this article will feel angry about foreign policy or have difficulties with their identity or dislike aspects of the modern world. To weaponise your grievances requires an act of will for which, in the end, only the perpetrator can be held accountable. But to prevent more attacks, we need to undertake the hard task of extending our curiosity. We might find the attackers are not so different from us after all, at least in some respects. Which makes me feel both strangely comforted and deeply uneasy.