We are living in an age of brutality that is openly endorsed by our political leaders.
It says something about the sheer volume of shocking news stories that surface every day now, that Boris Johnson’s comments on Libya are already fading from view across the major media outlets. In case you missed it, the British foreign secretary said at a Conservative fringe meeting this week that the Libyan city of Sirte could be turned into “the next Dubai” once developers are able to “clear the dead bodies away”.
The most troubling thing about this comment is that it’s not at all surprising. Looking beyond the “dead bodies” line for a second, the basic premise of what Johnson is saying here is clear – namely that a sovereign country that has been devastated by war (including UK-backed interventions) would somehow welcome a sudden injection of over-inflated property speculation and casino capitalism of the kind seen in Dubai. It amounts to the usual kind of neo-colonial arrogance and bigotry that we have come to expect from ruling elites like Johnson.
The “dead bodies” quip is the part that has received the most attention, of course, and it is here that the reaction is simply one of numbed horror. To treat the victims of war – men, women and children alike – with not just callous disregard but as the subject of fun, shows how bereft of civility, humanity and morality our discourse has become.
It is not enough to dismiss Johnson as a politically incorrect blowhard. He is a powerful member of the establishment whose views chime with a brutalised age.
Violence saturates every facet of our lives now, from the incessant noise, rage and conflict of social media, to the ever-looming spectre of terrorism and war. For Johnson to trivialise Libya’s dead – thereby scoffing at the devastating impact of bloody violence in the country – is another sign that chaos and brutality now reigns.
The same impression is felt following this week’s events in Las Vegas. The sheer scale of the mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest music festival that left 58 dead and over 400 injured is nigh-on incomprehensible. It reinforces the notion that rampant, hellish, all-consuming violence lurks just under the surface.
The response since the massacre from those involved in the US gun control debate does nothing to quell that sense of dread. There is no consensus and little focus on the victims. Instead there is a morbid recital of the same old highly politicised debates, inevitably resulting in no substantive changes to law or policy.
This stasis is another sign that violence is not just tolerated but openly accepted. Logically, if nothing changes after the largest mass shooting in US history, the frame of reference for what is acceptable shifts towards a more extreme version. Populations are brutalised, leading them to become more fearful and violent themselves.
The greatest danger of course is when this normalisation of brutality is harnessed by states for use against their own people. The sight at the weekend of heavily militarised Spanish police beating voters in the Catalan independence referendum was shocking, but again it fits with the times we live in.
Collective action is needed if people are to stem the tide of violence. Rediscovering a sense of community – and common values within those communities – is vital if we are to claim back our shared humanity in an increasingly violent world.