There’s a joke in gardening circles about a novice gardener asking a more experienced one: “When is the best time to plant a tree?”
“Twenty years ago,” the old gardener replies. “Because by now you’d have an established plant whose shade and fruit you could enjoy everyday.”
Now obviously, this is not the information the novice gardener was looking for, but the experienced gardener continues: “But the second best time to plant a tree is today.”
Don’t lament the lost time. There were other opportunities, and you’ve missed them, but now there is a new opportunity. Take it.
On Monday, in Sydney, there was a hostage situation, where a gunman held several people inside a cafe for many hours. Finally, he was shot after police stormed the building when there was an altercation between one of the hostages and the gunman. There’s now no doubt the gunman was delusional. He was also known to police, had been convicted of several offences, one relating to the murder of his ex-wife, and he had been recently charged with indecent and sexual assault.
What made people sit up and take notice, however, was the fact that a black flag with white Arabic writing was held up at the window shortly after the siege began. Immediately, there was a flurry of confusion in mainstream and social media. Was this an attack by Islamic State? What did the flag say? Who are these people? ARGH THE MUSLIMS ARE GOING TO KILL US ALL…
To be fair, most of us didn’t quite make the leap to that last statement. But some people did. Enough people that it made me think about radicalisation and where it begins.
When something like this happens – when there is an event which escalates quickly, or even which is over quickly, like the horrendous attack in Peshawar just a day later – there is a kneejerk oh-no-how-can-we-fix-this? reaction, and the trouble is, in most case, there is no adequate (or appropriate) response which isn’t just a jerk of the knee. Kneejerk responses aren’t generally appropriate. They’re something we do without thinking.
When there is a terrorist attack – and let’s be clear, this person was not really a terrorist, simply a person trying to behave like one – we want it to be over. We want a solution, we want for it not to happen again. So we start talking about retaliation and military solutions. But even those don’t guarantee it won’t happen again – possibly it won’t occur in the same place, but somewhere else, and then it will happen again somewhere else after that. And it happens because people who do this are disillusioned and excluded and radicalised to the point that they don’t see a problem taking hostages in a cafe, or bombing a marathon or kidnapping hundreds of women and children.
When that happens, we can’t just fix it. If we had wanted to fix it, we should have started long ago. We can shoot at these people and bomb their homes and even torture them. But none of that is going to stop what’s happening – if anything, it will make things worse. Those who already believe some twisted “logic” which allows for people to be murdered or maimed in the name of a god or a cause are generally not open to rational arguments that challenge their perspectives.
Sweden is currently dealing with issues of youth alienation and extreme right wing political groups, and attempting to show the disaffected people who are drawn to this ideology that there are other ways to be involved in a community. People often convert to extremist thinking because they feel that the extremist groups can offer them something which is missing in their lives. What can we change about our mainstream society so that this doesn’t happen?
One of the uplifting moments which came from the Sydney siege was the movement inspired by the #illridewithyou hashtag, in which people offered to to travel on public transport with those in religious dress – in particular, Muslims – so that they might feel safe. While not a perfect solution to the issue of a racist backlash in the face of the crisis, it did allow for people to express solidarity and make a pledge to refuse to give in to a kneejerk response. It doesn’t exonerate any of us; it doesn’t mean that suddenly there is no racism or xenophobia, but it brings to the surface a challenge: what will we choose to do? Embrace each other in a time of sadness? Or turn on one another and attack those whom we think are too different, too much ‘not like us’?
We needed to start looking at ways to prevent this from occurring, many years ago. Like the best time to plant a tree, the best time to ensure our society is an open, evolving, integrated one was years ago. But the second-best time is now, and the only way we can do that is by reaching out, by thinking about the language we use, by considering how it feels to be ‘other’ in our community. A society which is inclusive and respectful doesn’t have to be some false, saccharine sit-com-like scenario where everyone’s the best of friends. Of course there will be disagreements and arguments; there will need to be compromise from everyone. For some of us, it may take a seismic shift in how we behave or how we think.
But for the sake of our combined future, we can’t afford to wait any longer.