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Joining dots, even when they’re not there

29 July 2016

Shock: the murder of Fr Hamel on the front cover of Wednesday’s Telegraph

Shock: the murder of Fr Hamel on the front cover of Wednesday’s Telegraph

I AM writing this as reports come in of two men entering a church in a suburb of Rouen, capturing the tiny congregation, and cutting the throat of the elderly priest who had been celebrating mass, before themselves being shot dead by the police.

It is the fifth newsworthy murder of the month: there were the 84 people deliberately mown down on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice on Bastille Day; nine killed by a gunman in Munich; 19 in Tokyo; and one victim of a suicide bomber in Ansbach in Bavaria. Not newsworthy, in the technical sense that they were little reported, were 292 Shia victims of a truck bomb in Baghdad; 80 killed by a suicide bomber in Kabul; and 37 more at a Shia shrine north of Baghdad.

Still less newsworthy were the unknown number of civilian casualties of the Syrian war, and the soldiers who must have died on both sides in that conflict during the past few days. Oh, and someone got shot at a sex party in suburban Surrey.

Most of these murders were committed by jihadis, and some were certainly planned by Islamic State. Some, it seems, were simply claimed by it after the event. Unlike al-Qaeda, IS is a loosely franchised operation, on its fringes as much an idea as an organisation. Whatever is done in its name is done for its sake. Something planned and carried out without the knowledge of anyone in Raqqa can, in retrospect, become a completely genuine IS atrocity.

Yet when the reports of these things come in, responsible journalists hesitate to attribute blame. This is odd. We are no slower to jump to conclusions than anyone else: in fact, speed at such gymnastics is a professional advantage. And there is a small branch of the industry on the web where the speed of completely canned response is rewarded as never before. In the wake of the murder in the Rouen suburb, someone who can crank out a quick 500 words on why this means we should be more afraid of Muslims and angrier with liberals is going to enjoy a spike in market value.

Less money will be paid to the person who can produce a quick piece to prove it is all the fault of Tony Blair, but there are people who want to hear that, too.

The speed of these reactions, however, is what makes them worthless when trying to work out what has actually happened. You can see this most clearly at the margins: just as there are people who know that Tony Blair is responsible for everything bad that has happened in Iraq and elsewhere since 2003, there are others who know that this is wrong, and it is Muslims who are to blame for everything.

I keep on my hard disk a transcript of the comments on The Gates of Vienna — a website that was one of the inspirations for Anders Breivik — which were made as the news came through of his massacre of 137 people near Oslo. Everyone there knew from the first moment that this was a jihadi atrocity that would prove they had been right all along.

These people are easy to discount, because their prejudices are so far out of line with the rest of ours. But most of us do assume that, when a report of a mass murder comes in, it has something to do with jihadis. That’s the way to bet today, but it doesn’t offer certainty.

The most morally interesting, because unexpected, of the murders this month are those that fell out of the pattern: the Tokyo killings, and the Munich ones. In Munich, an Iranian-German youth, inspired apparently by Breivik, killed people he regarded as “filthy Turks”. In Tokyo, a youth apparently inspired by a horror of disability slaughtered 19 sleeping inmates of a hostel for the severely disabled.

Moral interest is not, however, the same as moral salience. It is almost its opposite. Morally salient information is the stuff you don’t have to think about but must simply act on. Stories that suggest “our side” is being attacked by “the others” are like that. So are those that suggest that our side is being betrayed.

It is precisely because those stories carry such a charge that they are picked up and remembered. Who, honestly, registers the atrocities that IS has perpetrated against the Shia in Iraq and elsewhere? They are not news here — not because they happened far away, but because the victims were not sufficiently like us.

Good journalists are aware both of the emotional charge that makes “a great story”, but also of the extent to which it can disable critical thinking. That’s why they can report the horror without ascription for what seems a ludicrously long time.

The only other morally responsible answer is the one where religious leaders appeal for peace and reconciliation — and that is even less newsworthy, however quickly it is done.

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