“War, war, no peace! Peace is to me a war” – Constance, King John, William Shakespeare
When I started this blog I had no intentions of commenting directly on the news or political events. On Sunday, I opened up my internet browser to be greeted by a putrefying stench – the pervasive smell of fish surrounding the story, first reported in the Sun, about a supposed plot to assassinate the Queen (that’s OUR queen, the British queen, God love her) at the Remembrance Day service in the Royal Albert Hall. Firstly, a lot of news sources reported that it was a gun or a bomb plot, which is not true – the arrests were done on the pretence of there being a ‘stab plot’ against the Queen. In the interest of balance, I won’t commit to any certainties, but nearly every household in this country has at least one knife in it that could probably cause severe damage to an 88 year old woman. These are not people found with bomb-making equipment in their kitchen, there is no smoking gun in this story. In fact, no weapons were found during the initial raids. The men apparently had ‘access to firearms’. What does that mean? With enough know-how I could find a gun if I really wanted to. I find it too convenient that such a story would emerge, on such a flimsy pretext, on this week of all weeks, when the suspects had been under surveillance for months, in the midst of perhaps the worst feelings of insularity and xenophobia I can remember happening in this country. Of course we should be vigilant following the events in Canada. But we should also be careful of turning a blind eye to a degradation in the legal status of British Muslims (or, heck, anyone who happens to look and sound foreign enough for the papers to run a juicy story), one which allows them to be subject to increased police interference and to be assaulted by people in the street.
The phrase ‘routine surveillance’ is one which only uncovers dubious dealings when you really pick it at it. In the context of what the Sun are saying, ‘routine surveillance’ is comfy, a sort of honourable act that the bobbies do in order to keep us safe in the fantastical Merrie England village which the Sun tries to convince its readership it could live in, if only they piggybacked onto enough of the paper’s campaigns. ‘Routine surveillance’ means the Met Police making an order for historical metadata on phone and communications usage – something which does not require a court order. How utterly convenient, then, that a story like this would emerge, where surveillance seems to be what’s needed to keep us all safe, in the wake of the scandal which uncovered just how much ‘routine surveillance’ was carried out by News International. Something seems to be very strange at the heart of it – it was only a few weeks ago that the Met Police were slapped on the wrists for using the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act to tap into the phone of the Sun’s political editor. Maybe, while Operation Elveden is still ongoing, it is the Sun’s way of proving that they and the Met are not so different after all – they both act in the public interest, even if they have to be canny in their methods.
There is a deeper lying hypocrisy about this story which I can’t stand either. In the past year people have been thinking critically about religion and the unique idealism it holds which can provoke people into committing heinous acts. This is not a bad thing, in and of itself. But the way that the Queen (her Maj, our Liz, God love her) is spoken of in most red-tops borders on the religious itself. She is the only person who can make this story work, as she is perhaps the one woman in the world (except maybe Beyonce) who is above all criticism. The Sun is expecting to stoke a righteous indignation in their readers, who in turn would presumably find the idea of faith in the ideals of Islam an utterly intolerable concept.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Remembrance in the past week. Writing that seems like a doubly redundant sentence, but thinking and Remembrance to me seem increasingly mutual exclusive activities. The Remembrance industry, such as it is, is one which appears to provide us with niches for individual thought – a minute’s silence here, an art installation there – but social media has exacerbated the rapacious groupthink which occupies Remembrance. This is what I think Jonathan Jones was trying to get at when he wrote about the poppies at the Tower of London, before he (or his editor) decided to make the article incendiary to the point of embarrassment. The Tower poppies are undeniably powerful. But they are not the type of installation which facilitate an individual response – if you go there, you will be standing on your tiptoes to try and get a better view, you will have other people’s elbows jabbing into you, and generally, you will, through the power of collective experience, feel obliged to view the piece in the manner in which it is expected for you to. Remembrance Sunday is important. The poppy, in its red and white incarnations, is important. But no-one should ever feel that they are obliged to Remember with a capital r. Remembrance should involve personal discretion, whether you’re reading Owen, going through a religious text, scanning through history books (that, heaven forbid, may explore beyond the Western front), looking at the letters of a family member involved in the war. It’s a dexterous feat of historical interpretation to claim that the soldiers in the conflict fought for ‘liberty’, but if we assume that to be the ‘moral’ of this war, then we should use it to justify thinking about it in our own personal terms, not with a sense of obligation and shame that is drilled into us from the newspapers and elsewhere.
One final point – terrorism is scary. That’s how it works. It makes you suspicious of people you walk past on the street, it closes off your mind, it encourages you to accept freedoms being curtailed. But as I mentioned at the top, it is pretty obvious that one party (whether the government, the Met, or the Sun) felt the time was right to launch what was effectively a conveniently timed PR exercise, moving against four men who have very little in the way of evidence against them. Terrorism also makes you blind. It makes you think that there is only one hot topic in the world, and that if only we could cut it off at the source, we’d be able to go back to the normal lives we once led. Don’t get drawn into the fear stories – think about the real difficulties that this country is facing at the moment; the piss-poor rights for housing tenants, the slow death of higher education possessing any sort of intellectual merit, and loneliness. The last one is different because it is not as contingent upon government policy, or lack of it. But it is perhaps the most preventable. All of those factors work in tandem to create disenfranchised people (who may be succoured into extremism) just as much as any abstract ideology. Initiate contact with a friend you haven’t spoken to in a while. Call your parents. Say hi to your neighbours. Don’t proceed through the world alone and scared.