I was online on Saturday night as reports started coming in about a van driving into pedestrians on London Bridge, and of people being stabbed. With a sinking feeling I started following the #LondonBridge hashtag as the events – which we now know involved eleven people losing their lives (including the three attackers) and almost fifty more being injured – unfolded.
On Twitter, amidst the Islamophobic and racist tweets (which, in the days following the attack have more or less taken over the hashtag), those offering places to stay, those expressing sadness and prayers, were many tweets from people asking despairing questions: Why does this keep happening? What is this? Why are people doing this to us?
With three lethal attacks labelled as terrorism in Britain in less than three months, and the ensuing media frenzy, it is understandable that people feel scared. But one of the things which struck me on Saturday night was the sense of confusion expressed by many, underlined by a sense of unfairness about why this apparently senseless violence is happening to (people like) us. Alongside this sense of confusion and unfairness, people wrote of no longer feeling safe on the streets of Britain, and others simply saying ‘please just make it stop’.
This sense of confusion exhibits the power of the white supremacist fantasy which denies the fact that we live in a fundamentally violent world. The relative safety and wealth which people in the west (differentially) experience is a product of a long and violent history, which started with European colonial expansion, genocide and transatlantic slavery. These were the building blocks of the modern, capitalist world. Philosopher Charles Mills writes of the power of ‘white ignorance’ which holds this system in place: a form of racialised ‘non-knowing’ about the global system of racism which ‘fights back’ even when confronted with obvious and concrete evidence, because the maintenance of white supremacy depends on it (Mills, 2007: 11). Naming the global system of violence as white supremacy (or to cite bell hooks and to be more precise ‘white supremacist capitalist patriarchy’), is not to suggest that all white people hold conscious beliefs in their racial superiority, nor that only white people participate in the maintenance of ‘white ignorance’; it is rather to point to whiteness as a structure of power and understanding of the world which functions to define who is seen to be fully human.
A world system where people in Europe can go about their lives as thousands of people drown in the Mediterranean every year as a result of Europe’s border laws – there to preserve our sense of safety – is a fundamentally violent world. A world where over a million people have been killed and millions more traumatised in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria and other countries in the so called ‘war on terror’ is a fundamentally violent world. A world where billions of people live in poverty while a small wealthy elite gets richer is a fundamentally violent world.
How safe and entitled to safety people within ‘the west’ feel is stratified by race, gender, disability, class, faith and citizenship status. Millions experience the violence of poverty within the borders of Europe. In Britain, benefits sanctions have been linked to over eighty cases of suicide by disabled people since 2010. An average of two women a week are killed by their current or former partners. Black people are targeted for harassment and violence by the police, and Muslim communities are targeted for state surveillance through anti-terror legislation. Yet none of these forms of violence, enabled through systems of racist, ableist, sexist and class oppression, are labelled as ‘terrorism’. Definitions of different kinds of violence (and what gets defined as violence in the first place) are deeply political.
None of this is to say we should not be horrified or not care about the violent acts committed in South London on Saturday night. But we need to place this violence in the context of other violence; we must refuse to accept the dominant narrative that violence labelled as ‘terrorism’ is exceptional and fundamentally different and more heinous than the less spectacular, more everyday murderous violence produced by this world. It must also be recognised that we do not have an exceptional right to safety in the west. This is a white supremacist delusion – one that most racialised people in the west already know too well. Nothing I am saying here is new – those who have been fighting against white supremacy and colonialism have been speaking and writing these truths for a very long time. But whiteness resists hearing. Until it is possible to have honest public discussions, recognition and action rooted in a global understanding of violence as rooted in white supremacy, there is no way to ‘make it stop’ other than through further enactments of violence.
Terese Jonsson works at the University of Portsmouth