The mourning that follows the now-familiar terrorist attacks in Europe are starting to reveal us to be a people more adept at being victims than brave survivors.
With increasing regularity we can turn on our television screens or open a newspaper and read about yet another terrorist attack on the European continent. With just as much regularity, the people of these countries unite in prayer and remembrance following the deaths of innocents.
It’s a common scene: flowers left at the site of the tragedy, social media adopts the colours of the harmed nation’s flag, hashtags pop up, lights are dimmed, messages of condolence are issued by world leaders, and yes, there’s maybe even a candlelight vigil or concert of hope.
The point of these tributes is ostensibly to remember the victims and prove to the perpetrators of these horrific acts of violence that the people will not be cowed, that they will go on despite everything. Undoubtedly these tributes are heartfelt, and perhaps it’s just my cynicism kicking in, but I can’t help but feel that these exercises in grief are turning us into the battered spouse who continually makes excuses for a violent partner and refuses to insist the aggressor is held accountable.
We Don’t Know How to Be Righteously Powerful
What do I mean by that? Well, in the United Kingdom there have been three Islamic extremist attacks in as many months. According to national security services, several more have been foiled. All of them stem from radical Islamists intent on causing as much horror as possible. We all know what the problem is. But for some reason we can’t say it out loud. We can’t bring ourselves to acknowledge that to be safe we must do something about our unhealthy, dysfunctional relationship with Islam.
Why can’t we do this? I think the West has adopted a masochistic credo of victimhood because it’s the only way to wield personal power now without the stigma that usually goes with the traditional power dynamics.
Throughout the twentieth century all the sacred cows of the West were slaughtered: Politics became toxic, national identity and patriotism became sullied, the churches were exposed as deeply corrupt, and our cultures gave in to the lowest common denominator. This has left the West with an identity complex.
At the same time, being a victim of any or all of these institutions has became highly advantageous. Moral authority and social status is now accorded to those who insist they have suffered at the hands of the patriarchy, economic injustice, and historical grievances. In effect, being a victim now gives one power.
In the old days power went hand in hand with responsibility. It had to be used wisely because the threat of the people bringing down these institutions checked bad behaviour. But what happens when we’re standing in the ruins?
You Get What You Allow
Victim power is unlike the old traditional power structures in one very important respect. Significantly, the power that comes from being a victim means that no one can be held accountable when it’s misused. After all, why would anyone question someone who has suffered so terribly from the forces of oppression and bears the emotional scars to prove it? You’d be a jerk to blame the beaten spouse, right?
To my mind real power today resides in cultural power, not political. One need only look at political institutions on both sides of the Atlantic to realise how ineffectual and how easily undermined they can be. No, real power is cultural, and eventually it will saturate the political realm. As George Orwell said, true power resides with those whom you can’t criticise. And when you can’t criticise those wielding state power, you’re living in a fascist state.
We’ve taught ourselves to be victims, and disturbingly, we’re really good at it. So when you the next terrorist attack occurs (like buses, one will be along shortly) and everyone mourns so effectively, stop and ask yourself whether you’re seeing bravery in the face of danger or victims doing what they know best.