Last Friday we woke to the news that in New Zealand, a country that has been described as the closest to England in the world although the furthest away geographically, a gunman had rampaged through two mosques during Friday prayers, murdering men, women and children indiscriminately. Fifty unarmed worshippers were slaughtered and scores more were injured.
Like the murder of 11 worshippers at the synagogue in Pittsburgh USA, or the murder of 69 young people on summer camp in Norway plus 9 bystanders in Oslo by a violent racist, the crime in New Zealand was motivated by undiluted hatred. We mostly find it impossible to comprehend how any human being could calmly look defenceless people in the eye at close range and then cold-bloodedly shoot them dead. But history is all too full of the evidence of bloodthirsty brutality. If only these murderers were completely different to the vast majority of the population. But in fact, in Srebrenica or in Rwanda or in the Rakhine Province of Burma, thousands of otherwise normal men have taken part in mass killings for no other reason than the racial or religious background of the people being killed.
What is different about Ipswich, or England in general, or New Zealand, is that we have a society where such violence is unthinkable. Only very seriously disturbed people will ignore the whole weight of society and give vent to their most evil impulses. We have a grave responsibility to ensure that our social block on violence is preserved and strengthened. There is nothing innately different between a Burmese or a Serbian or an Englishman – it is the society we have grown up in that leads us to behave differently.
We need a zero-tolerance approach to violence. That includes policing violent incidents and punishing offenders who are caught. But it also includes clamping down on any glorification of violence. We have allowed far too much gratuitous violence to creep into films, video games and social media. Amazingly, and disgustingly, it is still possible to watch YouTube films of some of Tavis Spencer Aitkens’s killers gloating about the drugs they have sold, the money they have made, the young women they have abused and the violence they have perpetrated. One of the killers was even able to send out messages from his cell while awaiting sentencing. I have raised this more than once in Parliament, but with very little response from the Government. Films showing sexual exploitation are quite rightly clamped down on, but we must do the same for violence. Whether the violence is portrayed directly or through the medium of rap is entirely irrelevant in my opinion – a rap video promoting violence is every bit as unacceptable as a preacher promoting violence or an extremist “politician” preaching violence.
I want to go one stage further. I believe we should have a zero-tolerance approach to hate, too. Not that we should close down debate. Obviously some people think some ideas are good and other people think they are hateful. I would be shocked and surprised if everyone suddenly stopped being passionate about Brexit and all started agreeing with each other – it would be nice, but it isn’t going to happen.
But there is a world of difference between hating a particular policy or argument, and stirring up irrational hatred against a person or group of people. Personal attacks, especially when they are based on deliberate lies, should have no place in our mainstream media, our social media, or our politics. Our local press and radio are largely blameless in this regard, although I’m not sure I could say the same for all of the national press. The media need to allow people with a range of views to express them – they are there to facilitate free speech. But they must not provide platforms to those whose only intention is to whip up hatred against particular groups within our community. If it is wrong for YouTube to make violent rap available, it is also wrong for newspapers and radio stations to give space to “politicians” who preach hatred and intolerance. I am hopeful that we will not see a Victor Orban or an Erdogan in Britain, but we cannot afford to be complacent.
In the end, hatred and violence lead only to misery and destruction, of the hater as well as of the hated. There is no future in a world where everyone is motivated by hate. If we can’t learn to live together then we may not live at all.