Monday 19 August 2019

Did Paris grab you? Well then, you are not a robot you're not a robot.

The Paris terror attacks stirred an emotional response that is purely human, writes Kevin O'Rourke

An attack on decency: An injured woman is taken away from the Bataclan concert hall after a group of Islamic extremists unleashed a ferocious attack on innocent people in Paris
An attack on decency: An injured woman is taken away from the Bataclan concert hall after a group of Islamic extremists unleashed a ferocious attack on innocent people in Paris

Kevin O’Rourke

I'm afraid I may be a psychopath, or a racist, or a racist psychopath, or something. I can usually keep the news in my head without letting it hit my gut too hard. When I hear of brutal murders as a result of feuds between criminal gangs, my mind goes down the route of imagining ways we might fix Dublin's heroin problem.

When I hear of a train crashing in another country, I hope they figure out what caused it, and that everyone learns from it. When a bomb is detonated in Beirut, I want to know who's fighting over what. So far, so detached - so intellectual rather than emotional. I will admit, however, that when I read about someone tweeting the police from inside the Bataclan - asking them to storm the place quickly because gunmen were executing hostages, one by one - I momentarily wanted to vomit. My blood ran cold. You'd have been able to see my muscles becoming tense.

Facebook seems a bit angry with me over this. I am a phony with no respect for life outside Fortress Europe. Alternatively, it's the fault of the media, conditioning me to feel a stronger connection to my fellow white sort-of-Christians than I do to my fellow man in distant places. I can only hold my hands up and offer this in my, and the media's, defence: I'm not actually a computer.

For obvious reasons related to survival, fear is really very good at holding our attention. As a result, if you want to distract me from something happy, sad, funny or painful, the best way by far is to scare me. Thus, we see things that are obviously not frightening at all described as 'chilling' or 'terrifying moments'. In the papers, criminals may be 'monsters', 'sick' or 'beasts'. It doesn't always work, but they do their best.

What happened to me when I read the desperate tweets from inside the Bataclan was no more and no less than the release of adrenaline from a pair of glands sitting atop my kidneys. It wasn't something I decided to do, or something that my news source (which posted the fact without comment) foisted upon me. It was an autonomic reaction as I made the connection that I've been to Paris, I've been to concerts, I own a smartphone: my word, that could have been me.

This is why I had a stronger visceral reaction to Friday's events in France than I do to gang-related violence in Ireland, for example. I don't believe Parisians are inherently more valuable than Irish people, and I absolutely don't believe that those who become involved in organised crime automatically forfeit their right to life. It just suits me to believe that if I keep the old nose clean nobody will bother to kill me. I don't know if that's true, but it's worked so far.

It is the randomness, the unpredictability, the total lack of control over something like a bunch of mad bastards with AK-47s bursting into a concert that shook me to the core. It's the same reason plane crashes glue us to the news far more than car crashes, even if nobody dies.

We get a fright. We can't do much about it. We hate not being able to do anything so we come up with something to do. We recognise heroes. We show solidarity. We sing anthems. We put French flags on our profile pictures. I'd suggest that this was the digital equivalent of waving sticks of incense around. Why do we love a good ritual so much? Why do scorpions sting? Why do cheetahs run so fast? Why do cobras spit venom?

I am not a perfectly rational being. Neither are you, and neither is anyone else. If we were all perfectly logical, rational, equally-short-and-long-termists, we'd all be fit, healthy, wealthy, well-organised people and nobody would ever go bankrupt. Getting more worked up about Paris than Beirut isn't right, but it isn't wrong either. It's just us.

This is not to suggest that we should simply do or say whatever our first emotional reaction tells us at the time. Not at all. We wouldn't want to go around like crocodiles, biting anyone who offended us or snatching and eating anything that looked tasty. I only mean to say that there's little point judging our emotional reactions.

It's not particularly useful or practical to say we shouldn't feel a certain way when we do. All we can do is step back, have a bit of a think, and try to work around the foibles that come as part of the human condition. Then we have the best chance of making policies and laws that work. Understanding our weaknesses is essential to ensuring we aren't ruled by them.

Sunday Independent

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