Social commentary

Gaza, London, Streatham and the randomness of violence

After a meeting this Thursday, I got the underground from London Bridge station back to my office. As I walked onto the platform, a man spat on the ground just as I walked past. Instinctively I glanced up but I continued walking along the platform and a few yards on, I stopped to wait for the train. As I stood there, I saw the same man looking at me aggressively. He then started walking up to me snarling “What you lookin’ at? You want some…yeah, you f***’in want some?” He came right up to me, putting his face in right in mine and repeatedly threatened to hit me.

I simply said “I didn’t do anything” and backed off, making conciliatory gestures. But he continued moving towards me. I thought he was going to head-butt me.

But all of a sudden his face changed from snarling aggression to a dismissive shrug. It was like he had decided I wasn’t worth it and he walked away. But as the tube came he was still looking at me, angrily muttering to himself. As he got on the tube, I thought it best to allow him to travel on without me. I stayed on the platform and waited for the next tube.

Marginal and random

I don’t know why he picked on me. Maybe he had mental health problems; maybe he was having a bad day; possibly he hates people with ginger hair. And I don’t know why he backed off. Maybe my actions calmed him a bit, maybe I was just lucky. Who knows?

Afterwards it struck me how marginal and random the outcome of such situations are. If just something had slightly wound him up further then he may well have inflicted real damage to me. Instead of a minor incident which shook me a bit I could have been seriously injured and left with physical and mental scars.

Serious assault

Earlier in the week, in our street in Streatham a boy was pulled off his bike by a group of other kids and knifed. As the police and ambulances were dealing with it I spoke with a neighbour about what had happened. No one seemed to know much about it but she said that the boy attacked was lucky as he only suffered relatively minor wounds to his leg and arm.

Again, the outcome could have been so different. In an assault where someone pulls a knife the difference between minor wounding and fatality hangs on the smallest of factors. The twist of a body, the timing of the blow, the hitting of an artery or a major organ can turn a situation from an assault into a tragedy. A murder victim and a murderer created in seconds, destinies forever changed on momentary actions that no one is fully in control of.

Bombs in Gaza

And finally, and most awfully, this week we have seen the random terror created by bombs landing into the residential areas of cities, as Palestinians and Israel have traded missile attacks. We have seen the hospitals in Gaza filling up with the maimed, shattered bodies of innocent children who have happened to have been in the wrong place when bombs have exploded. Lives ripped apart by someone pressing a button miles away.

The organised violence of war always creates random devastation. As I saw on TV the confused and desolate face of a terribly injured young girl in a Gaza hospital, I was reminded of a line in Sebastian Faulks’ novel Birdsong set in the trenches of the First World War:

‘The random violence of the world ran supreme; there was no point in trying to find an explanation.”

In some ways it is the randomness of violence and war which makes it so scary. Bombs do not simply fall on the guilty. As the book of Ecclesiastes says:

“Bad luck happens to everyone. You never know when your time is coming. Like birds suddenly caught in a trap, like fish caught in a net, we are trapped at some evil moment when we least expect it.” (9:11-12)

The darkness of violence

This week I walked away from London Bridge unhurt. The boy in my street was less fortunate. And many thousands in Gaza are facing a terror and fear I can scarcely imagine.

But whether it’s on our doorstep or miles away in other countries, the randomness of violence creates a downward spiral of injustice, revenge and hatred. No one was more eloquent about this problem, or the solution to it, than the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr:

“Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

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