Terror and British Government policy

Last week I asked a gathering of Gothic scholars in Limerick how they understood Angela Carter’s claim that: “we live in Gothic times”. I went on to answer my own question by arguing that the treatment of long-term ME sufferers in the UK and elsewhere is a literal enactment of Gothic terror. But that was last week.

I’ve spent a lot of time writing, travelling and talking recently and, today, I had intended to work in my little basement studio for the first time in months. But first, and as usual, I went out before breakfast to get milk and a paper.

The paper’s headline drew my eye to a plain statement of fact. The British Government “will not support any future search and rescue operations to prevent migrants and refugees drowning in the Mediterranean”, since it believes that these “simply encourage more people to attempt the dangerous sea crossing”. No matter that the people making this decision are part of a tight-knit moneyed elite that, historically speaking, has grown rich on exploiting the African continent (among others) – first through the slave trade and then through mineral extraction and other forms of natural exploitation. Nor that this is a Government – aided and abetted by powerful media interests – that on every possible occasion uses the threat of ‘terrorism’ to manipulate the electorate into supporting a steady erosion of human rights. No. The British elite will increase the terror involved in making the Mediterranean crossing by withdrawing its support for a humanitarian effort that has saved some 150,000 lives this year alone, and so will facilitate further deaths by drowning – the fate of approximately 2,500 men, women, and children over the last twelve months.

Of course the use of terror has long been a mainstay of British Government policy, with (but more often without) the knowledge of its electorate. The historical facts relating to the British response to the Mau-Mau uprising in Kenya – a situation created by gross colonialist exploitation – are not untypical. We now know that significant numbers of entirely innocent Africans were tortured and murdered. Official accounts make it clear that some prisoners were roasted alive, while others were subject to ‘questioning’ that included “slicing off ears, boring holes in eardrums, flogging until death, pouring paraffin over suspects who were then set alight, and burning eardrums with lit cigarettes”. It’s also clear that the use of castration by British troops and denying the detainees access to medical aid were both common and widespread. All of which took place in my lifetime, less than a decade after the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps.

Of course we are now much more sophisticated than this. We either (supposedly) leave such measures to those who, like our American allies in the ‘War on Terror’, don’t bother with the niceties of things like the Ginevra Convention of Human Rights, or else we collude in sending suspected ‘terrorists’ to places where they can be tortured with impunity.  

Last Thursday I suggested that we need a heartfelt reframing of human expectations so as to enable us to see that human suffering is not a ‘problem’ to be ‘solved’ (whether by eliminating those who we have made to suffer or by ignoring their suffering). Shared suffering is absolutely integral to our human sociability and so, ultimately, to our collective survival as a humane society. Our ruling elites – whose psychological orientation is best categorized in terms of Elias Canetti’s pathological ‘survivor’ – refuse to acknowledge this because it contradicts their assumption that they have an incontestable right to their current privileged lifestyle – no matter who or what suffers in the process. This pathological ‘survivor mentality’ increasingly pervades our society as an extreme form of possessive individualism, one that’s amplified by the cult of celebrity. Those adopting it act in the belief that they, personally, are incontestably entitled to whatever they can grab, (or to what they now expect as a matter of right on the basis of what their forefathers could grab).

We now live in world increasingly saturated by an assumption that follows as part of this mentality, something illustrated by some recent research undertaken at a prestigious US University. By using MRI scans of students’ brain activity, this has been able to show that many students, and it seems in particular the wealthiest, reacted to photographs of the homeless and drug addicts as if they have stumbled on a pile of trash.

In the UK we are now all too familiar with this mentality – it has animated the present Government’s policies on welfare for the long-term sick and very poor for some time. But, it seems, this is now to be extended to those Africans dispossessed to keep the people who regard David Cameron, Boris Johnson, and George Osborne as ‘one of us’ in the style to which they believe they are entitled. As a result British Government policy is now that the best thing to do with ‘human trash’ trying to cross the Mediterranean is to let ‘it’ drown.