Brussels 22/3

The day of the Brussels bombings. But still she managed to get here. Kajsa, that is, from Stockholm. Despite heightened airport security, and a fire at Grantham station. (Don’t they know the Witch is dead?)

The by now familiar conversation over wine and nibbles back home, late at night. What do they think they can gain from bombing us? Don’t they feel twinges of guilt, or at least sorrow, when they see the pictures of the dead and maimed on TV? Hear the sobbing of the children? Sense the hatred they are provoking, including hostility directed at their religion, which may be a ‘religion of peace’ essentially – though I have to say I’m not entirely persuaded? Or do they actually rejoice in it all?

I’m a historian, and historians are supposed to be able to empathise. (It sometimes gets us into trouble. But of course empathy and sympathy are entirely different things.) I think I do understand, intellectually, some of the motives that turn young people into jihadists (or even Norwegian neo-fascists into wholesale murderers): political grievances, real or imagined; marginalization; adolescent angst; imprisonment for petty offences, opening the door to radicalisation; the comfort that ‘faith’, a ‘higher’ cause, and a sense of ‘belonging’ can all bring; the fierier words of the Prophet; a love of violence in itself; and perhaps the prospect of those 72 large-breasted virgins and ‘young boys of perpetual freshness’ they’ll find awaiting them in Paradise – even if that is a mistranslation of the original Arabic. (The martyrs are going to be sorely disappointed when they’re offered a plate of 72 white raisins instead of the houris.) In particular, as a democratic and anti-imperialist socialist, I can actually sympathise with some of their hostility towards what they characterise (misleadingly) as ‘the West’. But of course that can’t justify horrors like this. And I really cannot imagine anyone’s being unmoved by the scenes we saw yesterday. Even a perpetrator. Are their targets somehow dehumanised for them? Just symbols, of something or other?

I have nothing original to offer on these events. But as a historian of the London Police Special Branch I am familiar with earlier forms of terrorism, and of counter-terrorism. The latter – and the question of its place in an ‘open’, liberal and ‘free’ society – is obviously a big issue today. I may write about these topics later. But now is not the right time. Apart from anything else, like everyone, I feel too angry. And anger is the enemy of good judgment.

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