Walking out of the local park yesterday, a young teenage boy wandered towards us.
He caught my eye because the park was busy with families and groups of friends enjoying the Good Friday sunshine, but he appeared to be completely alone.
As we approached each other I noticed that a black leather jacket hung from his slumped shoulders, not what you’d expect a kid his age to be wearing.
His feet occasionally scuffed the floor as he wandered, his eyes never leaving the ground to meet mine or anyone else’s.
As we passed, he drifted across the footpath towards the playground, as busy as I’ve ever seen it with noisy groups of kids swarming over the swings and frames and obstacles, parents clustered around half watching and half chatting with each other.
Over my shoulder, I watching him as his pace slowed a little and his head lifted slightly to survey the playground for a free seat where he could blend into the bank holiday crowd.
I noticed a couple of mums close to the fence stop chatting to each other as he approached. No friendly welcoming smiles, more like 2 bouncers eyeing a lone drunk stumbling towards their door.
As he found the playground gate he slowed right down, running his fingers over the backs of the curved steel bars in a sort of self-conscious daydream, silently contemplating.
Then his hand dropped back into his pocket, his gaze fell back to the floor and he continued down the path, away from the busy playground alone.
Once he’d passed the end of the fence, when it was safe, the bouncers went back to their chat.
My heart sunk for that boy, alone in probably more ways than just his wander through the park that day.
To me, he was a typical example of someone who doesn’t fit what we call “normal”. You’ve seen the type growing up at school and even now at work.
But just as obvious as it was to see on the outside of that boy, I know there are just as many (maybe a lot more) who may appear normal on the outside but feel like a complete misfit on the inside.
Two things really hit me on the short walk home from the park:
Firstly the sympathy I felt for that boy.
Secondly, for the first time I really saw clearly the very first step that “normal” people take down the path to becoming fundamentalists.
The starting point is simply the feeling of not fitting in, being different and rejected by the group you want to be part of. This feeling is built in very small increments over many years.
Just noticing people’s body language and facial expressions when you’re around, catching the end of a name being called as people glance at you or hearing giggles from kids at school, knowing you’re the punch line of another joke.
As sure as these things alone are almost inconsequential, the cumulative effect on a person over many years of childhood will unavoidably paint a picture in that person’s mind that they do not fit in to their world.
Imagine the feeling of rejection from knowing that you don’t fit in.
Then imagine the relief when one day you find someone else who feel just like you. Then finding a whole group of people just like you, who you can laugh and joke with for the first time. Finally feeling like you aren’t invisible and someone’s got your back.
Like the Fire Triangle we learned at school, I think that religious fundamental terrorism can only work with 3 ingredients. I’m calling them The Terror Triangle:
The Oxygen: Firstly there is peace, or everyday life as we know it and take for granted. Then a bomb goes off and people get killed just going about their everyday lives, just like you and me, and we realise we have something to lose. Something to fear.
The Spark: Secondly there is evil, in the form of the very (very) few individuals who want to cause pain and will influence others to commit acts of evil for them. Derren Brown demonstrated that it’s disturbingly easy to persuade “normal” people to kill (you’ve got to watch this show if you haven’t seen it – promise I’ve not spoiled it!).
The Fuel: Thirdly, for fundamentalist terrorism to actually happen the first two parts of the triangle alone aren’t enough. It needs an army of willing participants, people who don’t feel part of ordinary life, who feel rejected and simply want to feel normal and accepted, as we all do. These are the people most vulnerable, the easiest targets, for the evil influencers.
We’ll always have something we don’t want to lose, our ordinary peaceful lives and the people we love. And there will always be a very small number of evil doers in the world. We have no power to remove those 2 parts of the triangle.
But what we can influence, every one of us, is the fuel – the army of ordinary people who feel outcast and rejected and desperately want to feel important, not invisible.
In the moments after leaving the park, I was struck by the fact that I’m one of the people responsible for creating the fuel.
I’ve sniggered at racist jokes and used racist names and quips to make others laugh. Never in a hurtful way, just to feel more accepted myself as one of the group.
I’ve made racist comments and thought racist thoughts when someone’s upset me and its been easier to pick on the colour of their skin than to accept that people are just people and sometimes we piss each other off. Never in a hateful way, but I know my feelings have shown as expressions on my face and in my body language.
I know that over my life, I’ve contributed in a very small way to the feeling of a very small few of being rejected, outcast and not part of the group.
As I mentioned already, small discrepancies are merely increments in isolation.
But in an age of unlimited communication and connection, these many isolated small increments made by people like me, have been compounded on a global scale.
The result, by the time it has become visible to the naked eye, is a movement (a widely-held belief about the western world) which has so much momentum that it can’t be stopped. At least not overnight.
Cutting off the fuel supply to this movement can only be done with a real tangible change in the way we (the western world) accept and communicate with the people around us. People who appear different, but crave acceptance and feel rejection just as we can.
And it could take generations to undo.
So with this understanding of where the fuel for this fire is coming from, the question is how can we remove it? How can we cut off the fuel so the fire dies out?
Will building walls and blowing them up with our own bombs, reduce the fuel?
Of course not.
What that will do, apart from super-charging the fuel supply, is set the rules of the game to be an eye for an eye.
This is the primitive behaviour and mindset that got us here and, as Einstein said:
“We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them”
The power to remove the fuel from the fire lies with those who created it. Everyday people like me changing our attitude and reactions towards people who appear different, but inside are identical.
Choose not to laugh at the mildly racist joke, think twice before voicing an assumption or calling a name based on how someone looks and be the first person in the room to make the new kid feel welcome.
The fuel that’s already been created is unlikely to deplete, but we can stop producing more right now.
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