As I write the families of fifty Floridians (citizens of the US state of Florida) are mourning the loss of brothers, sisters, sons and daughters. Countless others are receiving treatment for wounds that should never be seen outside of a battlefield; and all because they were pursuing the most noble of American dreams, that of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
A night that doubtless began, with laughter and dancing ended in terror and despair. Emotions felt acutely across the globe tonight. It seems intolerance and savagery is all around us. In the east families are being bombed out of their homes. In Europe a debate rages about whether the dispossessed and traumatised should be offered help or left to drown in the Mediterranean, or to rot in the squalor of camps. Meanwhile thugs, masquerading as football supporters, are tearing up the streets of France. Tribalism is everywhere.
I have always railed against despondency; believing that such feelings are futile. To alter things, you must first believe that change is possible. Pessimism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Tonight I am struggling.
Of course, when seen in the context of human history, these things are not a new phenomena. A glance at any high-school history book will demonstrate that, while humanity is capable of great leaps in science, art and technology, it’s also true that bigotry, warfare and religious hatred are ever present saboteurs. It’s not so much a case of ‘one giant leap for mankind’, but of one step forward and two steps back.
Perhaps our only saving grace is that no matter how many times we falter, we keep taking that next step. So it is at times like this that I look for inspiration among those who have endured the most horrendous injustice and privations and somehow found belief, where others find only despondency and resignation.
I think of the great civil rights campaigners in the United States, who withstood beatings and lynchings in their fight for justice. I am moved by the story of Mandela, of the people of Eastern Europe who threw off their Stalinist dictators and literally tore down walls to win their freedoms. Closer to home I find the Hillsborough campaigners an enormous source of strength. For over a quarter of a century they faced down defeat only to emerge victorious and vindicated in the end.
They didn’t succumb to defeatism, so what right do I have to entertain such feelings. We have to keep believing that a better world is possible, especially in the face of barbarity, Failure to do so hands an easy victory to the forces of ignorance.
People are not inherently bad. If that’s a conclusion you draw from recent events, then you are simply the victim of confirmation bias, seeing only the things that confirm your world view and ignoring facts that contradict it. Yes someone carried out an act of hatred today, but why not focus on the queues of people desperate to donate blood to the injured, some a mile long. Acts of love and solidarity. Hope is everywhere if you look for it.
Anne Williams fought the state for more than two decades and won truth and justice for her son Kevin who died at Hillsborough in 1989.
In reality those of us who would come to the aid of the suffering are legion, those who would wilfully inflict suffering are few. Their greatest strength lies in convincing the rest of us of our powerlessness. It is a lie.
Expressions of solidarity, however well-intentioned and heartfelt, cannot be substitutes for action though. Change only comes when the majority act as one. Even now, with wounds still fresh, the dead not even identified, there are those who seek to use the tragedy to sew more seeds of division.
In act of crass insensitivity and demagoguery, Donald Trump chose to use the atrocity to justify his own Islamophobic rhetoric. Only in the mind of a deluded bigot could you find justification for intolerance against one minority group in the murder of another.
People are stronger when they work together. Communities flourish in times of peace and cooperation and societies move forward on the basis of common interest. To answer hatred and fear with more of the same is simply the product of a bankrupt ideology; and it must be challenged wherever it raises its ugly head, be it in America or Europe.
So rather than allow despair to take hold, events like those in Florida and all the others should drive us on. They show that there has never been a greater need for solidarity and collective action to end discrimination and intolerance. Our sense of outrage is a manifestation of our common humanity and is its self a cause for hope.
So it is perhaps fitting that I end this piece with the words of a freedom fighter who gave his life in the pursuit of gay rights. Harvey Milk became the first openly gay politician to be elected to office in California. As a member of the San Francisco board of supervisors he would go on to enact anti-discrimination laws, in the face of terrible hostility. He refused to give up and was ultimately assassinated. His words below feel particularly relevant today.
“Hope will never be silent.
If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.”
Harvey Milk (May 22, 1930 – November 27, 1978)