On the weekend, two men were murdered when trying to ward off a man spraying abuse at ethnic people on a train, a couple of whom were Muslim.
The tragedy occurred in Portland, Oregon in the US, a country that, like Australia, has experienced its share of racial tension. Only now, we have so many more media and online outlets through which to demonstrate hate, express power and create divides if we so choose.
I don’t use social media a lot, and I tend not to respond to tragedy on it. But something in me burst when I read about what happened; two women innocently targeted, two men lost. I felt overwhelming emotion, the same kind I feel whenever I read about unjust events. The fear that fuelled this man’s rage was not singular and it felt bigger than a few hashtags could dissolve. But in a sense, what we see on social media is an amplified, hyper-realised version of life in the real world.
The fear that fuelled this man’s rage was not singular and it felt bigger than a few hashtags could dissolve.
Once again, I felt the need to remind myself not to slump into the fear and disgust I so often see defining the lives of others.
“In every moment we have a choice: choose love”, I wrote. Knowing it sounds elementary, naïve perhaps to some. And yet it speaks not to love of all; many of us lack care for ourselves, so to expect an outpouring of unity might be a stretch.
Because the damage here runs deep. And it’s reflected in how we talk about these events. A flood of responses on social media – more widely the internet and its media – is what typically follows an act of terror. Indeed, white supremacist violence, if you’re interested in semantics, are considered acts of terror by many, even if media outlets stick to the facts when the perpetrators are considered anomalies. ‘Two men killed’ or ‘Two men stabbed’ is the focus. Few write that a white supremacist terrorist committed murder. It might get called a ‘hate crime’. Though, some thrust the focus on the bravery of the men who lost their lives, marking them as heroes.
The brutality of the act is reflected simply in the language people use to talk about it.
It ultimately matters little in the short-term. The use of language is a long-term problem that ties in with wider perceptions of violence in today’s world, where and when it’s considered acceptable. Even as people madly query ‘why do they hate us?’ following an act of terror, it’s rarely considered a hate crime.
This gripe about how we selectively describe violence as terror, as well-founded as it is, speaks more to the imbalance in media coverage, where terrorism is often described as something unique to ethnic minorities, Muslim communities in particular. And so it has bled into a wider issue: a collective fear of ‘The Other’ that gets massaged further with each act of terror that affects the West.
...terrorism is often described as something unique to ethnic minorities, Muslim communities in particular.
However, while reactions, fierce or emotional, have a tribal essence to them – particularly in the age of hashtags – acts of violence draw out from us a personal reaction. Even if we’re not conscious of it, we’re doing the calculations: who did this happen to? Why? Could that have been me or someone I loved?
Crimes of any kind can be confronting and traumatic, but they also, understandably, amplify fears around one’s own security. This energy of fear is evident in the emotional responses of people, that sometimes start to sound more like an analysis – casualty numbers, race of the perpetrator(s) and victim(s) – rather than the frightened, distressed response it is. One man’s Syria is another man’s Team Australia or Team America under threat.
At the heart of all of this is a common denominator: fear. And from that flows many things: anger, ignorance, distrust and in some cases, violence.
Because racism is about power, and power is like money – many people seek it without understanding that it isn’t the answer to a fulfilled life and its absence isn’t the only problem.
I’m not suggesting that the fear of a white supremacist or your average garden-variety racist is on a par with the fear a person at risk of danger in a war zone, or even terror at ‘home’. They’re very different currencies, but it is fear nonetheless.
Because racism is about power, and power is like money – many people seek it without understanding that it isn’t the answer to a fulfilled life and its absence isn’t the only problem. There have been enough studies and ruminations on this in history.
The shred of light bursting through this relentless global misery is that more people are rising to respond with more love and compassion, even if they’re filled with fear. When London suffered a tragic attack last month, many took to the internet to declare #wearenotafraid.
Following this week’s Portland atrocity, Muslims began raising money for the families of the victims.
And there is this: a tribute from Vajra Alaya-Maitreya, the sister of one of the slain, Namkai Meche:
“In his final act of bravery, he held true to what he believed is the way forward … We ask that in honor of his memory, we use this tragedy as an opportunity for reflection and change. We choose love.”
It matters greatly if the response to this tragedy is that we seek to find a way forward, that we all choose love.