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Hoses of the Holy in the Parallel Universe

July 07, 2005

They're only human

It's an odd thing. I've talked about it before. I tend to think that all people are nice. I tend to think that the only cultural barriers today are ones of racism or bigotry. I tend to assume that only red-faced white-men would unjustifiably harm other men.

But that's not so, is it? The world is such a small place now that it is very easy to forget how different we all are, how incompatible we often are.

In the UK we quite often pay public lip service to the idea that different strokes get along. Perhaps, deep down, we are all capable of global empathy and humanity. But it takes a certain intimacy between individuals before the capacity for empathy really comes into play.

I'm sure I read somewhere that we all have an innate capacity for unbelievable cruelty to other men. Unbelievable, that is, from the perspective of an outsider.

And it seems worse when cruelty is coupled with some sort of abstract pseudo-logic; you don't need to look any further than nazi Germany in the time of our grandparents to see what ordinary people are capable of.

Now, if the object of that cruelty is an abstraction then it becomes easy to inflict enormous agonies on other individuals by proxy.

I read someone's comment on the BBC website about the bombings in London today. "How can anyone be so cruel to other humans", she said.

And if it's true, as they are now saying, that the bombings have been undertaken by Al Qaida and are therefore born of religious and cultural motives, it does seem odd, because London is one of the most culturally neutral cities in the world at the level of the streets and the people who walk them: one of the most tolerant places.

But the bombings aren't aimed at killing Londoners, whatever the colour of skin or faith: they're aimed at something rather more abstract: Britain as an abstraction.

It's an odd thing. Blair has announced that terrorism will never win. But it seems to me that it already has. It may have killed only 40 or 50 people but it has created an enormous stir in the collective conscious again, disrupted business enormously, and set the media off on another wankfest of yes-we-have-no-bananas news bulletins. In other words it's hurt individuals and Britain qua abstraction.

It always strikes me as curious too that translations of Islamic texts on the Internet are very beautifully worded: almost poetic in their elegance. Whoever does these translations obviously cares deeply about maintaining form and structure in the use of English. I wonder why. Maybe that is reflective of an academic exercise; abstraction again, rather than concrete. Or maybe it is just a respect for the word of Allah.

I don't believe any religion is enough to condone murder, and it is often angry young men who employ it as justification, rather than cause, for inhumanity. But it is still unsafe to assume that a stranger will be a friend in our little world.

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