The George Gently series is not for the faint of heart. This British detective series is set in northeastern England in the mid to late 1960s and deals with weighty topics like rape, child abuse, wife beating and others. What is interesting is to see what I assume is an accurate portrayal of society’s attitudes towards these ills at the time. Equally interesting is how the show’s creators weave in real historical events that provide useful context to the episode in question.
The airing of “Gently Northern Soul” was one such illustration. Released in 2012 it tells the story of a murdered black woman in Durham that happened at a time of high racial tension in the UK. In one scene several characters are watching or listening to Enoch Powell’s (in)famous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in which the politician railed against mass migration to the country, especially from Commonwealth nations (and especially black immigration). The tension is further heightened by the debate over the 1968 Race Relations Act which made it illegal to refuse housing, employment or public services to anyone based on colour, race or ethnic/national origin. One landlady posts a sign in her door saying ‘No dogs, no Irish, no Blacks’ while a scrap metal dealer has a poster in his office with the slogan “For a better Britain a whiter Britain”.
What struck me about this particular episode was how the events portrayed could just as easily occur today. We are seeing anti-immigrant sentiment all over the world, led by populists who want to turn migrants away, assisted by a US President who talks of ‘invasions’. On occasion these feelings spawn violence: the El Paso shooter complained about an ‘invasion’ of Hispanics (I wonder where he got THAT idea?).
Even more terrifying is how a hatred for the Other – i.e. racism – has fed genocide. I am referring here to the Bosnian civil war of the early 1990s. We all have read of how Serbian (and Croat) nationalists targeted Bosnian Muslims for rapes, torture and executions. Can anyone forget the Srebenica massacre of 7,000 Bosniak men and boys in July 1995?
It gets worse. According to a report I read this morning on The Intercept homepage, not only is there historical revisionism going on in Republika Srpska on what transpired a quarter century ago but the exploits (crimes) of Serbs of that time period are inspiring some right wing terrorists to carry out new massacres today. The 2019 New Zealand mosques shooter wrote the names of Serbian nationalist leaders on the rifle he used to carry out the killings. 2011 Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik heaped praise on wartime Serb leaders in a manifesto he wrote before his attacks. A domestic terrorist in Pennsylvania who killed a state trooper in 2014 posed images of himself on social media in a uniform from the notorious Drina Wolves unit. And on it goes.
I would bet that most of us cannot fathom how anyone could praise such wanton, heinous violence and seek to use those crimes to justify similar acts. But that is what happens when nationalism goes bad. Of course there is nothing wrong with pride in one’s country: I am a very proud Canadian. It is when this sense of identity veers into exclusion, a sense of siege and hate that it becomes something else entirely. It turns into terrorism.
I also see these incidents as further evidence that radicalisation to violence does not happen in a vacuum. Terrorists learn from each other and from each others’ acts. This is why we see so many manifestos in which newer extremists praise older ones. Terrorists are made not born, and they certainly don’t make themselves.
In the end racism and prejudice are probably as old as our species. Today’s communications technology allows these beliefs and views to spread much more easily and much faster. In the worst case scenario we get mass killings. I do not know what we can do to stop all this if racism is so endemic to humans. That does not mean we can stop trying. After all we need fewer, not more, El Pasos and Christchurches and Srebenicas.