It’s a media rule that, to grab people’s attention, you need to shock.
I don’t think the BBC’s been deliberately rattling our cages, but numerous recent news bulletins have issued warnings before running reports on a variety of atrocities.
They say one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. But there are times when acts of “war” become outrages, barbaric and unacceptable in any context.
Take the story of the Afghan girl, Spozhmai, whose brother made her wear a suicide vest. A tough little character, she speaks vehemently about the experience. Only ten, she’s nobody’s fool: and she didn’t want to die.
She knew her brother was lying when he said, “The vest will kill those soldiers, not you”. She was intercepted (it appears she chose to give herself away) and the suicide vest defused without harm. A happy ending, then?
Almost. Except she can’t go home. She’s adamant about that. She must build a new life for herself – aged ten.
The latest horror story to come out of the Central African Republic involves a Christian militia fighter – nicknamed Mad Dog – eating part of the leg of a Muslim attacked by a mob and beaten to death, after which his body was burnt and dismembered.
In the interests of accuracy, I should stress that some members of that Christian militia claim to be bulletproof because they wear amulets containing the flesh of their dead foes.
I don’t remember such black magic being part of my catechism classes at an early age, and I doubt Christian teaching has moved that far in the interim.
This is crazy stuff: lynch-mobs; children used as suicide bombers; cannibalism.
It’s not the media setting out to shock, rather the instigators who calculate and escalate their dreadful acts of aggression precisely in order to render them as harrowing, as repulsive as possible.
As a little boy in the 1960s I spent all my time play-fighting, shooting my friends and creating endless imaginary gun battles between Cowboys and Indians or Brits and Germans. I grew up on a diet of war stories through the comics that I read avidly. I couldn’t get enough of such games.
Nonetheless, it was just play. I still enjoy a Clint Eastwood western on DVD: but the point is that I grew up.
By contrast these unhinged killers haven’t done so. Retarded adolescents, seduced by and believing in their twisted self-image, they play insane, testosterone-fuelled games: but their knives and guns are real, their games played with bloody, fatal consequences.
Sadly, we see shades of such behaviour even in the UK, in gang culture’s macho posturing, coded language, abuse of girls and obsession with weaponry. It’s not just something in a distant country, to be deplored, then ignored.
But what can we ordinary people do about it? I think we can achieve something.
None of us can change the world on our own. But we can follow the New Year advice of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, to emulate Nelson Mandela and try to change our bit of it. In our own circles we can quietly nail the lies and affirm what is good.
In our small way we can refuse to let pass the racist or homophobic comments we encounter.
We can calmly decline to hear asylum-seekers or immigrant workers branded scroungers.
We can condemn murder, rape, oppression and genocide where we read about them without being scared to speak out for fear of offending someone’s religious sensibilities.
Instead of keeping our heads down and saying nothing, we can line up with moderate Muslims, Christians, Jews, indeed with all right-thinking and humane people, to speak out against extremism. Eventually the nutters, the truly wicked, the savage and wild will be isolated and seen clearly as the villains and wrongdoers they are.
If we all made our bit of the world better, we might be surprised by how much we can achieve.