Westminster Attack: One Month On

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Today marks the one month anniversary of the Westminster Bridge attack, which left five dead and several others injured.

It seems like every time we switch on the news these days there is another terrorist incident to report on. Just two weeks after the Westminster attack, a similar incident took place in Stockholm and before that were the attacks in Berlin and in Nice.

Hearing about these incidences so frequently tends to give an impression of our world as a deeply troubled place. Understandably, it fills us with fear and anxiety as we go about our daily lives because we don’t know when the next attack will take place.

Living in a heightened state of anxiety is one way we can go about our lives in the aftermath of these attacks. Another way –  and one that I would suggest trying – is to look for the light in all of these incidences. That may sounds odd… how could we possibly find anything but darkness in these attacks?

Let’s take the Westminster attack as an example. If we would be willing to acknowledge it, there were plenty of examples of light amid the darkness.

Take for instance, Melissa Cochran, the widow of American tourist Kurt Cochran saying she feels ‘no ill will’ towards Khalil Masood, the man responsible for killing her husband.

The efforts of MP Tobias Ellwood, who many referred to as a hero for his efforts to save PC Keith Palmer.

The interfaith ‘Service of Hope’ at Westminster Abbey, which defied the narrative of fear and hate by bringing all communities together.

The uplifting messages written across various London underground stations the day after the attack (as seen in the photo above).

And of course, the beautiful flowers and heartfelt messages that were placed in Parliament Square by people who had never met the victims.

This list could go on. The point I’m trying to make is that if we look for darkness in this world, we will surely find it. This is what the mainstream media typically chooses to focuses on.

If, on the other hand, we allowed ourselves to see things differently, we would find light even the worst situations. We just need to be willing to look for it.

 

Responding Versus Reacting

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Within the realm of interpersonal communication and psychology an important distinction is often made between reacting and responding. Being in reaction allows only the most primitive part of our brains to be activated and therefore when we react, we are driven purely by emotion. It is predominately a defensive and instinctual approach where we mirror the behaviours we perceive to be directed at us. If someone raises their voice at us, we raise ours back; if we feel insulted or threatened, we insult or threaten in return.

By contrast, responding is a conscious act. It involves a higher level of cognitive reasoning, and as a result there is a slower and more deliberate quality to our words and actions. Whereas reacting is immediate (and very often done in the ‘heat of the moment’), when we respond we tend to suspend judgment and prior assumptions in order to better understand a situation, and to consider a wide-range of potential solutions before taking action. As such, responding enables us to act from a place of integrity, and to honour our core values as we seek to resolve conflicts constructively.

Although it would be ideal if we were able to respond more often than we react, it is the latter that appears to come most naturally to the majority of people, particularly in situations where we perceive ourselves to be under attack. However, whenever we do react, rarely does it serve us. Instead, it facilitates another round of fractured communication, deepens resentment and intensifies conflicts. While this is certainly true when it comes to our interpersonal relationships, I wonder whether it also applies on a larger scale – in situations where societies or nations feel under attack?

In recent years I’ve observed how often political leaders assume a reactive posture whenever their countries experience a terrorist attack. In the aftermath of recent terror attacks in France, for instance, President Hollande stated his intention to seek revenge. Subsequent to his remarks, the President authorised military action, which he promised to be ‘merciless’. His actions were immediate, defensive, singularly focused on retaliation, and thereby, very much in the spirit of reacting.

President Hollande is by no means alone in his approach; a reactive posture has been adopted by the majority of states involved in counter-terrorist operations. In accordance with this approach, the conditions under which military force may be deployed have been significantly reinterpreted. Instead of being a last resort, military measures have been utilised both as a first resort, but also pre-emptively (that is before an attack has actually occurred).

Just as this reactive posture does not serve us on an individual level, taking a reactive approach to countering terrorism has not diminished its occurrence whatsoever. To the contrary, many would argue that it has intensified the problem. Instead of dissuading and deterring, this retaliatory language has actually emboldened and empowered terrorists. The more we seek revenge, the more we incentivise opponents who also claim to act in the name of revenge. What we end up doing is perpetuating a never ending cycle of violence. Moreover, the rush to act – a key characteristic of reacting –  has led Western countries to abandon and violate their own core values in the name of defeating terrorism.

So what if we were to stop reacting to terrorism and to start responding instead? What might this look like? The first, and perhaps most crucial shift we’d observe is the absence of an immediate, knee-jerk action. By choosing to respond, we would abandon the need to act with urgency, which is often how ill-advised policies and plans take shape. In the space that we create, we would invite more innovative solutions to emerge – ones that may not only be more effective in countering terrorism, while aligned with our core values, but also ones driven with the intention to restore harmony in the aftermath of an attack, instead of seeking revenge. What a welcome change this would be.

Observing the News

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In my last post, ‘How to Create the Opposite of Terror’ I discussed the feelings of powerlessness that arise whenever we hear the news of another terrorist attack in some part of the world. Although such feelings are perfectly natural, by dwelling in powerlessness and despair we overlook our capacity as individuals to create the opposite of terror in the world. So how can we begin to do this? How can we step into our power to create more unity, love and compassion on the planet? I would suggest that the first thing we can do is to develop a different approach to the news.

These days we have become so reliant on round-the-clock doses of news, whether it’s listening to hourly updates on the radio, watching live news broadcasts on television or the internet, reading newspapers online, or subscribing to news feeds on our smart phones. For most of us, however, this constant consumption of the news tends to be a rather mechanical process. We don’t usually challenge the content that is presented to us or give too much thought to how it is delivered. When we receive the news, we often do so as unconscious recipients.

But have you ever noticed that any time a terrorist attack occurs the media reports on the incident as though it is the only thing happening in the world? News of the attack is conveyed in the most dramatic manner, through eye-catching headlines, alarmist language and a sense of utmost urgency. The same images flash across our television and computer screens repeatedly and for that moment in time, all unrelated news stories seem to fall by the wayside. Such dramatized reporting helps justify the singular emphasis on an event or attack to the exclusion of any other news. Not only does this style of reporting put us into fear mode, it facilitates misperceptions of our world and grossly exaggerates the threat of terrorism.

Yet, we continue to rely on the news as an independent and impartial source of information, but how reliable is it? Far from reporting the truth, some of the reports we’ve seen in regards to the phenomena of terrorism have been inconsistent, sloppy and downright irresponsible – inconsistent in emphasising attacks in Western countries with less air time devoted to other parts of the world; sloppy in terms of grouping multiple attacks together under a single banner, despite how disparate and unconnected they might by (as seen with the series of recent attacks in Germany); irresponsible in the language that is used to describe such attacks (when will the media learn that the term’ Islamic terrorism’ is as meaningless as it is offensive? Such language only serves to create further divisions). In all these ways, it is clear that the media has become part of the problem.

In terms of the incidents themselves, there is no denying that they are troubling, but by continuing to rehearse the horror and details of each attack, we deliberately overlook other aspects that are of equal, if not greater importance. For example, there is one factor that all terrorist attacks have in common, and that is the overwhelming outpouring of love and empathy that arises in their immediate aftermath. Across each and every situation, we have witnessed a coming together of people and expressions of compassion among complete strangers, irrespective of race, religion and distance. These attacks may be fuelled by ignorance and hate, but they also generate love and bring people together. This was evident in the hundreds of Muslims who attended Catholic Mass in Rouen, and other parts of France, in a show of solidarity following the murder of Father Jacques Hamel. This story did not receive as much attention in the media as the initial attack. But why should we treat this show of solidarity as little more than a post-script, when it shows a much more authentic reflection of the human spirit than the attack itself?

If we want to create the opposite of terror in the world, we need to shift from being passive recipients of the news to conscious observers. This will require us to approach the news with a greater degree of discernment, to limit our exposure to alarmist reporting, and to seek a more authentic account of the world. On this latter point, it is worth highlighting that in addition to all of the attacks we’ve recently heard about, there have been many positive and uplifting developments that have transpired over the past month. Those who are interested in learning more about this are invited to explore the Inspired News Network (INN).

If we are able to become conscious observers of the news, we can begin to create some much-needed distance between ourselves and the events that occur in our world. From that space, we are better placed to respond (rather than react) to incidents of terrorism. I will pick up on the theme of responding versus reacting to terrorism in my next post, so please stay tuned.

How to Create the Opposite of Terror

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It seems as though every week that goes by brings news of another attack against innocent lives in some part of the world. Over the past few weeks alone, there have been attacks in Orlando, Istanbul, Dhaka, Baghdad and Nice. In each situation, we hear the same kinds of questions being asked: Why did this happen? What can be done to stop this? Where and when will the next attack take place? Each incident has also brought up a similar range of painful emotions, from rage and sorrow to confusion and fear. Beneath all of this is an underlying sense of powerlessness.

Of all these emotions, powerlessness is perhaps the most harmful to us. Not only is it the feeling that such random attacks are designed to provoke, feeling powerless also severely distorts our perspective of the world and leads us to respond in ways that actually serve to fuel and perpetuate acts of terror in the long run.

When we look back at all of the attacks that have taken place in recent weeks, what we see in each situation are the actions of specific individuals leading to a tragic loss of innocent life. It is frightening to think that a few individuals can cause so much harm and pain. But why is it that we can acknowledge and even accept the power of one individual to harm, maim and create terror in the world, yet we struggle to acknowledge the flip side of this: our own power as individuals to create the opposite of terror in the world – unity, compassion and healing? We all have that power.

Many of us, however, do not seize upon our power to create a more loving and peaceful planet because we don’t perceive ourselves as powerful. Instead we feel small and insignificant in the world, and with each attack that occurs, we continue to feel smaller and more powerless.

When it comes to responding to an attack – on both an individual and a societal level – a response based on feelings of powerlessness will severely limit and constrain our choices. For it is when we feel most powerless that we respond with anger, fear and hatred, which is ironically an exact match to that which motivates terrorism itself. The outcome is that it generates more of the same, and so the cycle of violence continues.

What would it look like to respond to terrorism from an alternative vantage point – one that was consciously directed towards generating more peace and harmony on the planet? In my next few posts I will explore how we can begin to step into our power to create the opposite of terror in the world.

Lessons from the Iraq War

‘Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.’ Martin Luther King

Last week Sir John Chilcot, Chairman of the Iraq Inquiry, released his much anticipated report investigating the circumstances surrounding Britain’s involvement in the Iraq War. The purpose of the Inquiry was to examine both the causes and consequences of the conflict with a view to identifying lessons for going forward. In the 6000-page report, Chilcot highlighted crucial areas of failure in the run-up to the war through to the post-war occupation, including oversights in the gathering and use of intelligence, an exaggeration of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, and a ‘wholly inadequate’ level of post-war planning.

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The revelations in the report are particularly damning when reflecting on the countless civilian lives that were needlessly lost as a consequence of the conflict, not to mention the fact that Iraq is less stable today than it was in 2003. Chilcot’s report has also provoked considerable anger from the families of military personnel, whose loved ones were asked to make the ultimate sacrifice in a war now widely seen as ill-advised, unnecessary and illegal. As the public continues to process the findings of the report, it will be crucial to draw lessons from this experience in order to ensure that similar mistakes are not repeated. The extent to which the mistakes of the Iraq war can be avoided in the future will, however, depend on developing a better understanding of how this conflict arose in the first place.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq did not occur in a vacuum; it was very much a product of – and heavily influenced by – the context of 9/11 and its aftermath. Although it has been 15 years since the tragic events of 9/11, it is worth recalling just how momentous this attack was. Nearly everyone remembers where they were on that day and how they came to learn about what had transpired. It was, without a doubt, one of the most dramatic spectacles of violence ever witnessed in human history.

Amid the destruction and despair of that September morning, something quite remarkable occurred. Something which many of us seem to have lost sight of since. This attack didn’t just happen to Americans – it was an attack on the entire world. Even those who didn’t lose loved ones that day were profoundly moved and deeply affected. This became evident in the tremendous outpouring of love that emerged in the initial hours and days following the attack. From the ashes of the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and Flight 93, an overwhelming and unprecedented sense of unity, heartfelt compassion and love arose across the planet. It felt as though someone had pushed the pause button, and for the briefest of moments the earth stopped spinning as we awoke to the truth that we are all connected.

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Sadly, the sense of love that arose from the ashes of 9/11 soon dissipated and gave way to an opposing paradigm of fear. Fear that a similar attack would occur and a desperation to use any and all means imaginable to prevent it. From that point onward, fear began to take hold of our hearts and became the basis of nearly every misguided policy decision that came thereafter. It was in this context that the invasion of Iraq was conceived and ultimately executed.

Through the lens of fear, decision-makers exaggerated the threat of WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction), drew non-existent connections between Saddam Hussein’s regime and terrorist groups, and rushed into war without exhausting peaceful measures first or adequately preparing for what would come next. It was also in this spiralling climate of fear that some of the most terrible atrocities were committed against Iraqis, as witnessed by the incidents at Abu Ghraib prison and the tragic death of Baha Mousa.

Perhaps the greatest of irony of traversing the path of fear is that it has actually created what our political leaders had hoped to avoid when they set out to invade Iraq. While there was no significant terrorist threat emanating from Iraq in 2003, there certainly is now. ISIS – a much more pervasive and menacing force than Al Qaida – grew directly out of the conflict in Iraq. What is more, many counter-terrorist strategies have actually emboldened and empowered extremists, as the number of attacks, both in the region and around the world, have grown steadily.

As we come to terms with the conclusions of the Iraq Inquiry, one of the most important lessons we can take away is the utter futility of trying to defeat acts of terror and violence from a fear-based stance. As Martin Luther King once said: ‘Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.’ So if we truly want to undermine acts of violence and terror that offend every precept of our common humanity, we must find a way to restore, and then build upon, the unity, compassion and love we saw and felt in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. However short-lived it may have been, it was a much truer reflection of our nature than the disastrous and fear-inspired conflict that followed thereafter.