Our response to terror attacks has become increasingly therapeutic.
‘Despair is suffering without meaning’, proffered Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl in an interview once. In his most famous work, Man’s Search for Meaning, he paraphrased Nietzsche to the effect that: ‘He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.’ So, in gauging how people in Manchester and across the UK pursue their lives in the trail of the nihilistic attack on the Manchester Arena last Monday, as well as in the aftermath of other recent attacks, it ought to be to the question of meaning and purpose that we all turn.
I once interviewed two Singaporean citizens who had been caught up in the incidents in Mumbai in November 2008. Ten supposed affiliates of a Pakistani Islamist group had pursued a coordinated series of bombings and murderous attacks across the city over a period of four days, killing 164 people and wounding 308. The company the Singaporeans worked for asked me to speak to them to offer support – if any were needed – beyond that to be provided by their government.
I thought long and hard about how best to go about the task and determined to keep my questions simple and objective: When did you fly out? What were you there for? What did you do that day? When did you first notice something was wrong? What did you do then? What happened next? How did you get out? At the end I left an opening for them to contact me again should they want to.
Many might imagine that asking ‘Were you affected by anything you experienced?’ would have been somewhat more sensitive. But in whatever way they would have answered, the power of suggestion could then readily have elicited manifestations of psychosomatic trauma in them at a later date. Our minds work in mysterious ways. Singapore suffered its first ever fatality at the hands of terrorists during those attacks and so the media were keeping the matter salient in the popular imagination. It was to the media’s credit, though, that they did so in a considerably less protracted, shrill or emotional way than I have witnessed elsewhere after similar incidents.
Both of my respondents had spent many hours cooped up in their rooms at one of the hotels that was attacked, the Oberoi, before being freed. One had focused variously on his faith and on his family during his time there. The other had made some rather dangerous, if somewhat understandable, decisions – first trying to escape down a smoke-filled stairwell and then almost being unable to find his way back to his room before trying to smash the window open with an armchair and ultimately lacerating his leg on the fractured glass. Oddly, it was the need to stop the bleeding from this wound that then allowed him to remain calm and collected over the ensuing hours.
Frankl proposed that it is down to each individual to attribute an appropriate meaning to situations of adversity and that nobody else, however well intentioned, can do it for us. We may offer too much support and sympathy at such times. Emotional appeals from loved ones, concerned employers, the media, and government agents wanting to support their citizens, can cause additional stress and confusion during an emergency, as well as, in many instances, perpetuating suffering long after it.
‘Whatever you do, don’t give your name to any journalist’, my friend Simon Wessely, now the president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, told me following the London bombings in 2005. ‘They’ll never let it drop and will call you on every anniversary thereafter.’ People can and do forget. For many that really is the best option. Short-term anxieties rarely last.
Of course, participating in communal events like a mass vigil may seem positive to others, though I suspect that those who attend are mostly not those who are caught up in the incidents. Surveys showed inordinate numbers of people across the US claiming to have been affected by 9/11, even when their only exposure had been through the medium of television. Well-meaning as such gatherings and online statements of condolences may be, these can also be superficial and self-serving. Some turn it into an identity. We live in the age of virtue-signalling, after all. And if the best response to such incidents is to go about our lives as normal, as politicians assert at such times, then this is hardly normal.
Another friend of mine, sociologist and spiked contributor Frank Furedi, pointed out to me once that if the Israeli state held a few days of national mourning after every terror incident there, as the Spanish government did after the train bombings in Madrid in 2002, then at times it would be permanently closed down. Like it or not, the Jewish people have had to habituate to the circumstances they are in, supported maybe by a narrative of being God’s chosen people and of having endured suffering throughout their history. Of course, Palestinians also suffer there and their way of explaining this to themselves has also been through a narrative of resistance and future liberation.
At the beginning of 2001, before the attacks on New York and Washington, there had been a series of throwback incidents in Northern Ireland, as if from a time before the peace process. For weeks, hundreds of Loyalist protesters tried to stop young Catholic schoolgirls from traversing their Protestant enclave to reach the Holy Cross Primary School in Belfast. They hurled abuse, as well as urine-filled balloons and improvised grenades, at them. Police and soldiers had to escort the parents and terrified children through.
The school, as was already a growing norm then, offered the families counselling. There was no indication of what type of therapy this was to be or whether there would ever be any follow-up to verify if it had worked, so I later commissioned research to assess its effects.
What my collaborator discovered was that the girls most affected had been those with younger parents. These parents had been less able to situate the incidents within the political framework of the Troubles and communicate this to their children. To them, the violence appeared simply mindless and random. And this had left their daughters conceptually unarmed.
Encouragingly, there appear to be plenty in Manchester and beyond who are not afraid of articulating why what happened there did, and who are keen to show their defiance. Their framing can be rudimentary. It is certainly far less equivocal than that of the authorities who appear, as spiked’s Brendan O’Neill has noted, simply to offer vapid appeals for unity and harmony. But to not be angry at these events, argues O’Neill, is to be dead already.
Amazingly, at the height of the Mumbai attacks, one of the perpetrators used the mobile phone of someone he had just killed to conduct a live interview with newscasters at India TV. When the anchors asked him for his demands, he was heard putting the phone down and asking another of the attackers what these were. Almost nine years on, no one has yet articulated them. Not even those held to have planned and controlled those events from afar. That the so-called terrorists today have no explicit agenda or purpose, beyond carnage, is surely the element we should be exploiting the most. That is, so long as we are clear about our own.
Republished on spiked, 30 May 2017