A Guilty Reaction to Paris Terror Attacks

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I felt appalled by the unfolding events of last night and stayed glued to the television until the early hours of Saturday morning but my reaction has wracked me with guilt.

I wept as the death and injuries tolls rose. I was fixated on the hostages inside the Bataclan theatre and I could not help but check Facebook every few minutes in order to feel somehow connected to others. I changed my profile picture more than once in solidarity with France. Why?

I watch the news about Syria and Iraq (among other countries) regularly. I have joined a couple of volunteering groups to support the acceptance and care of refugees in the UK and yet I do not shed tears about traumatic refugee experiences in Calais or Lesvos in the same way and I have come to the uncomfortable position that Europe has a greater impact upon me than any other part of the world.

I say uncomfortable because I have spent the majority of my working life addressing and challenging stereotypes, especially in regard to ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentalities. I have sought out areas of difference between groups and tried to explain why individuals feel threatened by ‘otherness’ and yet, and yet when it comes down to it, I am governed to some extent by my grounding within a Eurocentric set of cultural norms. In truth, I emotionally identify more closely with France than with Syria.

And yet, what am I actually identifying with? The tenth arrondissement is multi-cultural and specifically inhabited by many individuals from Middle-Eastern and North-African heritages. Thus, my identification is not as simplistic as solely aligning myself with the ‘Free French’ image of World War II. I am not playing Rick Blaine to Captain Renault. But I have to be honest about my emotive reactions. Paris is a city I have frequented regularly. I identify with the food, the style, the beauteous wonder of it (but, I must admit that the music somewhat escapes me). I am more aligned politically to the French notion of taking to the streets in outrage. I have more historical awareness and my first husband is Parisian. Thus, I suppose that my connections are manifold whereas my connections to Syria, for example, are more singular and are based on an outraged response to inhumanity. This is a more singular reaction and simultaneously more amorphous because of its generalisability.

I am not connected by proximity per se. I am not fearful of similar events occurring in London. As someone who rarely pays attention to their environment, I have had several near death experiences when crossing roads or tripping over my small dog. My life will continue much as it does. This is not a display of bravery; of ‘standing up to and defying the impact of terror on daily life’. It is simply a case of having other priorities to worry about. But my realisation is that inconsistency is etched into the fabric of my being. The moral fibre running down my spine supports a ramrod belief that harming any human being based on the faux rationales of religion and economics is unacceptable, risible and requires challenge on all fronts. But my emotional self feels more tangibly when my historically–intertwined neighbour is harmed and the gap between the two states has led to my guilt and leads to a reconfirmation of the potential harm that the space between thinking and feeling can cause. It’s simply another spin on knowing that cigarette smoking is bad for me but my love of smoking beckons to me at all times. The difference, of course, is when I smoke, I kill myself. When I don’t challenge the schism between my thoughts and feelings, I help to kill others.

In essence, my heart lies in Europe but I hope that my soul is global.

Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: A secular jew’s perspective

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Tit for tat has seldom, if ever, worked. An ‘eye for an eye’ as we know usually results in blindness and so, what particular lenses can we bring to bear on the current escalation of the conflict between Israel and Palestine? Social psychological and historical perspectives are helpful here because lessons can be learned from history but they’re usually the wrong ones given our psychological make-up.

For me, insecurity is key, be it at international, national, local, group and interpersonal levels. Commonsense dictates that we are at our most accommodating and flexible when we feel secure in our selves. Who cares if a neighbour has bought a 50″ television screen? Or our friend is taller, thinner, blonder, richer if we are at peace with who we are. As my son would say, insecurity bites. The more insecure we feel, the more we begin to identify with others who are more ‘like’ us and then develop ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentalities (or in and out groups as social psychology is so fond of saying). In order to bolster our self-esteem and feel better about ourselves we find as many positive angles as possible and attribute negative behaviours, thoughts, etc to ‘them’. We unify certain others to the extent that we ringfence ‘them’ into psychological (and at times physical) ghettos. I’m not suggesting that we wholeheartedly embrace difference (although it would be kinda nice) but one aim should be to accept it. But, this is easier said than done if we keep insecurity at the forefront of our minds. And of course, a psychological headache manifests itself when we look at insecurity within our lives because our secure/insecure axes may well vary according to circumstances, the environment, workplaces, relationships and so on (actually, and on and on). I might feel really secure about my abilities at work but fall apart when I think about my relationship track record or my parenting skills. I believe that if we accept that states/nations/groups – ok, the world, experiences varying levels of insecurity, then we can begin to make sense of some of the behaviours we’re currently bearing witness to (although not necessarily testament).

Israel was founded to give Jewish peoples security on a number of levels – religious, economic and so on. And this is where lessons were learned that are difficult to unlearn. If the sense that too much hurt leads to ‘our never being hurt again’ we immediately develop an ‘us’ that requires differentiation from ‘them’. Anecdotally, we see it with our friends who have come out of a dificult relationship vowing to never be hurt again; they develop a dislike of the opposite sex and often, in so doing, further damage themselves. The same can be observed at societal levels. Of course, I do not believe that all Israelis have sworn off Palestinians and vice versa but those in power are so damaged that it is in their interests to perpetuate division.

Psychologically healthier outcomes from say, the Second World War would be those of mutual co-operation and an understanding, an empathy, an intuitive ‘knowing’ along the lines of ‘having been hurt, having felt the most intense insecurity possible, I will never behave like that towards another human being’ but that’s the problem with insecurity. It fragments us and thereby makes us lesser and we lose sight of the potential for commonality – for example, our love for our children – in our search for the magnification of difference.

Successive Israeli governments have armed themselves and not simply with military hardware but with the thickened skin that comes from feeling insecure. The more insecure we feel, the more we protect ourselves from further pain and humiliation. Insecurity is in fact humiliating. Exactly the same may be said of the Palestinian leadership. The problem of insecurity, the problem of feeling shame and humiliation is that we do not allow room for guilt. We become so busy defending our position – think of many men who have battered women: ‘she drove me to it’; ‘she kept pushing and pushing until I snapped’ that personal responsibility is left abandoned by the roadside because ultimately, if we feel insecure about ourselves, we will create difference between ‘us’ and them’ so that we inhabit a space that makes us feel safer. A space that heartbreakingly, cannot seem to allow room for the children dying in this conflict. Children on both sides – Israeli military personnel dying in this conflict are on average less than 20 years old; Palestinian children even younger. We need a psycholigcal shift that begins to address the notion that we all have a shared understanding of feeling insecure (and hence, my very difficult relationship with doughnuts).