Student Voice: The use of death

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By Liam McCaffrey

The past two weeks have been overcast with dark events across the world. On 12 June 2016, Omar Mateen entered an LGBT nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and massacred 49 people. On the 16 June 2016, MP Jo Cox was brutally shot three times and stabbed repeatedly, eventually passing away from her injuries. Both of these events stand among a series of other news items that are deeply sad and horrifying.

What was special about these events is that for some they had political meaning, or at least utility. After the Orlando shooting, a media frenzy began. Some were calling it a terrorist attack linked with Islam, others calling it a mass shooting due to homophobia, and some were arguing that Mateen simply had mental health concerns. However, Omar Mateen apparently called the emergency services before his attack and pledged allegiance to the so-called Islamic State. Many argued that this made the attack clearly an assault linked with and motivated by sympathy to a group that is well-known for the use of terrorism – enough to call him a terrorist, they argued.

On the other side, when it became clear that Mateen had visited the club before and had a profile on a popular gay dating app, it was argued that the attack was carried out due to internalised homophobia, with Mateen’s murder having nothing to do with Islam. On the right, those that believed this was an Islamist terror attack argued this was yet more evidence for why we need greater border control. On the right, those that believed this was an Islamist terror attack, argued that it, in no sense, represents most Muslims and instead shows why the US needs immediate gun control.

Tommy Mair is believed by local eyewitness Clark Rothwell to have shouted,  “Britain First” or, at least, “Put Britain First” at the scene before carrying out the murder of Jo Cox. However, Ahmed Tahir, who was said to have tackled Mair and given original testimony to the fact that Mair referenced Britain First during the attack, has now claimed that he did not tackle Mair and that Mair did not shout “Britain First.” Mair has now said in court that his name is, “Death to the traitors, freedom for Britain.” While there isn’t a confirmed substantive link between Mair and the group Britain First, there is no shortage of irked columnists holding Britain First responsible or complaining that Mair is not being referred to as a terrorist.

Both the mass shooting in Orlando and the assassination of Jo Cox can, and perhaps should, be legitimately called terrorism. The difficulty is that terrorism has a relatively loose definition. Moreover, the face of terrorism changes as the faces of the terrorists change. 9/11, the single most fatal terror attack in history took place as a result of Islamic extremism. Regrettably, on a global level, nearly all of the most fatal terrorist attacks in recent history have been recorded as motivated by Islamic extremism. This was true before and after the watershed moment that was 9/11. Therefore at the moment, there is a living generation that has only known terrorism to be Islamic, who can only recognise it in this form. This is, of course, still prejudiced, but it is perhaps not quite as perniciously discriminatory as some claim. Do not be mistaken, though, the debate about terrorism is a meaningless distraction from the true debate that must take place.

There is a sense of opportunism in the face of these deaths. Seldom is anybody responding to these tragedies with sincere grief that can sway their opinion. Again and again, commenters are looking to these events through an existing prejudicial lens and using these deaths to buttress their already held opinions. All of the opinions offered, point the finger to somebody else, whether that’s to the mental health of the assailants, Islam, Britain First or internalised homophobia. It’s a pass-the-parcel of blame. This is unconscionable. Death is not an opportunity for you to shout your opinions from the rooftop. Death is not the footnote in your thesis. Death should be the time for solemn contemplation out of respect for the victims or survivors and a genuine desire to make things better.

The truth is we may not be to blame very much at all. No one knows what influences cause people to carry out these murderous crimes. But, if we truly want to live in a peaceful world, we will work harder to make it better. Calling all Muslims terrorists has not reduced the amount of global terrorist activity, and deriding Britain First members for their views and grasp on English has not made them more sympathetic to the Muslim community. Calling Mateen and Mair crazy will not make the world a better place and it won’t make us better people. We need to respond to tragedies like this with a sense of genuine openness. Enough has to be enough at some point. We have tried this adversarial approach for a long time and all it has done is make us more divided and hateful. It is about time that we used death in the news in the same way we use death in our own lives: as a time for solemn contemplation, a pivotal moment that makes us become whoever it takes to not let this happen again.

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