Shattered lives

Last year, 26 people, mostly young men, were killed in gang-related shootings in London. Each death

On 15 November last year I received a phone call from my eldest son, saying that his best friend's bro ther, Etem Celebi, had been shot dead in Stoke Newington at 9.50pm the previous evening. We both felt disbelief, grief and a sense of hopelessness. Within hours, the killing had been named the 23rd gun crime of the year in London. A statistic.

Underneath was a devastated family, a shattered community, and broken friends. Etem's brother Firat had gone on holiday with us and both were regular visitors at my home, watching their beloved Arsenal.

Etem was 17. His parents, Kemal and Hayriye, were from northern Cyprus. Etem had attended local schools and was a student at Brooke House Sixth-Form College studying sports science. He played football for Leyton and, in recent months, for the under-18s at Dagenham and Redbridge FC. He had been Player of the Year and Players' Player of the Year, winning trophies since the age of 11. His many aunts and uncles, nieces and ne phews, lived around Famagusta.

Friends said of him: "He constantly made people laugh. He was bright and intelligent." His father said: "People loved me because I was his dad and loved him because he was my son."

I went with my son to visit the scene of the shooting on the Friday following the killing. We arrived at 8.30pm. Already the community had made a makeshift shrine, with scores of bunches of flowers, football shirts and mementoes. The scene was extraordinary, a gathering of more than forty 17- to 20-year-olds, their faces showing utter disbelief and shock. I had known many of them since they were at primary school.

The next day, I visited the family. Etem's father was unable to speak, his mother was under sedation, the extended family was in bits. During the next few days, relatives flew in from Cyprus, all unable to comprehend the enormity of what they were seeing. Over the following weekend, the family asked me to act as family spokesperson and to liaise with the police. I agreed and helped prepare statements.

The circumstances of the killing began to emerge. A small group of friends had been returning from the Angel in Islington and were hanging around a street corner talking to a friend who was leaning out of a window. Later, according to local youths, two young men approached the group. They asked them if they lived round the estate and the boys said they did. The two newcomers then pulled out guns and fired indiscriminately. The group fled, running to houses, heard screams, and within seconds realised Etem had been shot.

His parents ran to where he had fallen and held him in their arms for the few remaining minutes of his life. Within seconds, scores of neighbours were out in the streets, phoning the police, phoning for ambulances, trying to keep Etem conscious. The police arrived within minutes, the ambulance moments later. The emergency services did what they could, but the wound was too serious and Etem died.

In the days after the killing, Etem's friends and neighbours were struggling to cope with grief, but wanted to get organised. I suggested holding a ceremony and tribute exactly one week after the murder. The young friends printed T-shirts with a picture of Etem, made badges and dog-tags. I prepared a short speech and suggested a two-minute silence. As the day approached, there was significant interest from the Turkish and Cypriot - but not the British - press. I held an impromptu press conference at the scene on the afternoon of 21 November.

Mapping the problem

Later, hundreds of members of the community, mainly youths, gathered at the shrine. By 9.15pm it was pouring with rain. Despite the downpour, Etem's neighbours and friends stood in silence. I read out the statement and four or five of Etem's friends attempted to make contributions. All broke down in tears. Etem's teacher spoke, as well as a clergyman from the local church. Etem's grandfather spoke through an interpreter. Etem's mother arrived and thanked the crowd through a welter of grief and tears; and a local woman, who had lived on the estate for years, made an impassioned plea for an end to gun crime. She received moving applause.

Throughout these terrible days, the murder squad, through a family liaison officer, kept the family informed and gave full support. Arrests were made and charges followed. But the family's grief was made worse when the coroner was unable to release the body. Eventually, and thankfully, he was able to do so. A service, attended by hundreds, was held at the local mosque and Etem's body was flown to Famagusta for burial. About 20 of his friends, including my son, went to Cyprus to show solidarity with the family and support Etem's brother Firat.

I struggle to think of anything that has affected me personally more than this killing. It was unnecessary, senseless and an appalling waste of life. The incident tore the heart out of the estate. Families have moved, and immediate relatives do not want to visit the area ever again. Since Etem's killing, two more young people have been slain by knives and guns in London. As a consequence, there are more armed police on the city's streets than before. The police can still use prevention measures such as acceptable be haviour contracts and con ditional cautions with most troublesome young men but, chillingly, the number for whom enforcement (tags, curfews, incarceration) is the only response is growing. Placing further strain on overstretched police resources is the fact that increasing numbers of witnesses require protection placements.

As I write, tension between gangs in north London is described by community workers as being at the highest level anyone can remember. Some youths even wear body armour. Half a dozen gangs operate in the Borough of Hackney and scores more in the surrounding areas. The tension seems territorial, the influence of the gangs linked to postcodes. There is evidence of intimidation and involvement with drugs.

Essentially, these gangs do not care about the damage they do to others. The macho culture dictates that gang members be "badder" than their opponents. Consequently, the crimes increase in seriousness, their behaviour becomes more threatening, and punishments such as tagging, antisocial behaviour orders or unacceptable behaviour contracts start to look meaningless. The levels of alienation and exclusion are extraordinary. Many feel coerced into joining gangs in order to feel protected from rival teams and from fear of victimisation if they do not.

Efforts are being made to find a lasting way of marking Etem's memory. Police, local clergy and the constituency MP have held meetings. The community is planting trees and painting murals. It is possible that the youth club will open again, with structured activities that the community wants and needs. Attempts will be made to bring together all the bereaved families of gun and knife crime in Hackney.

But a political response is needed, too, not just in London, but in cities such as Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham, where there is evidence of out-of-control weapon crime. We need to map the extent of the problem, consider the facilities available to bring young people into mainstream society rather than exclude them, and look at the relevance of education, standards of parenting and the quality of life of those involved. If macho behaviour and guns are the only ways young men feel they can gain status, the problem is certain to careen out of control.

More armed police may lead to more armed gangs and more deaths. Increasingly, we will suffer the economic consequences of violent crime. Certain areas will become unviable as places to live or do business in. If, or when, this happens, perhaps the necessary investment in excluded youths will happen. If not, we face the Americanisation of our estates and communities.

The government must act now, and visibly.

Harry Fletcher is an assistant general secretary of Napo, the trade union and professional association for family court and probation staff

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Art is the new activism

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A nervous breakdown in the body politic

Are we too complacent in thinking that the toxic brew of paranoia and populism that brought Hitler to power will never be repeated?

The conventional wisdom holds that “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”, in Edmund Burke’s familiar phrase; but this is at best a half-truth. Studying the biography of a moral monster triumphantly unleashed on the political and international stage points us to another perspective, no less important. What is necessary for the triumph of evil is that the ground should have been thoroughly prepared by countless small or not-so-small acts of petty malice, unthinking prejudice and collusion. Burke’s axiom, though it represents a powerful challenge to apathy, risks crediting evil with too much of a life of its own: out there, there are evil agencies, hostile to “us”, and we (good men and women) must mobilise to resist.

No doubt; but mobilising intelligently demands being willing to ask what habits and assumptions, as well as what chances and conditions, have made possible the risk of evil triumphing. And that leads us into deep waters, to a recognition of how what we tolerate or ignore or underestimate opens the way for disaster, the ways in which we are at least half-consciously complicit. If this is not to be the silly we-are-all-guilty response that has rightly been so much mocked, nor an absolution for the direct agents of great horrors, it needs a careful and unsparing scrutiny of the processes by which cultures become corruptible, vulnerable to the agendas of damaged and obsessional individuals.

This can be uncomfortable. It raises the awkward issue of what philosophers have learned to call “moral luck” – the fact that some people with immense potential for evil don’t actualise it, because the circumstances don’t present them with the chance, and that some others who might have spent their lives in blameless normality end up supervising transports to Auschwitz. Or, to take a sharply contemporary example, that one Muslim youth from a disturbed or challenging background becomes a suicide bomber but another from exactly the same background doesn’t. It is as though there were a sort of diabolical mirror image for the biblical Parable of the Sower: some seeds grow and some don’t, depending on the ground they fall on, or what chance external stimulus touches them at critical moments.

If what interests us is simply how to assign individuals rapidly and definitively to the categories of sheep and goats, saved and damned, this is offensively frustrating. But if we recognise that evil is in important respects a shared enterprise, we may be prompted to look harder at those patterns of behaviour and interaction that – in the worst cases – give permission to those who are most capable of extreme destructiveness, and to examine our personal, political and social life in the light of this.

***

It would be possible to argue that the anti-Semitism of a lot of German culture – as of European Christian culture overall – was never (at least in the modern period) genocidal and obsessed with absolute racial purity; limited but real possibilities of integration were taken for granted, converts to Christianity were not disadvantaged merely because of their race, and so on. Yet the truth is that this cultural hinterland offered a foothold to the mania of Adolf Hitler; that it gave him just enough of the permission he needed to identify his society’s problems with this clearly definable “alien” presence. In his new book, Hitler: the Ascent, Volker Ullrich compellingly tells us once again that no one could have been under any illusion about Hitler’s general intentions towards the Jews from his very first appearance as a political figure, even if the detailed planning of genocide (lucidly traced in the late David Cesarani’s recent, encyclopaedic Final Solution) took some time to solidify. Yet so much of the German public heard Hitler’s language as the slightly exaggerated version of a familiar trope and felt able to treat it as at worst an embarrassing overstatement of a common, even a common-sense, view. One of the most disturbing things about this story is the failure of so many (inside and outside Germany) to grasp that Hitler meant what he said; and this failure in turn reinforced the delusion of those who thought they could use and then sideline Hitler.

To say that Hitler “meant what he said”, however, can be misleading. It is one of the repeated and focal themes in Ullrich’s book that Hitler was a brazen, almost compulsive liar – or, perhaps better, a compulsive and inventive actor, devising a huge range of dramatic roles for himself: frustrated artist, creative patron, philosopher-king (there is a fine chapter on the intellectual and artistic circle he assembled frequently at his Berchtesgaden residence), workers’ friend, martyr for his people (he constantly insinuated that he believed himself doomed to a tragic and premature death), military or economic messiah and a good deal else besides. His notorious outbursts of hysterical rage seem to have been skilfully orchestrated as instruments of intimidation (though this did not exactly indicate that he was otherwise predictable). Ullrich devotes a fair measure of attention to the literal staging of National Socialism, the architectural gigantism of Albert Speer which gave the Führer the sophisticated theatre he craved. In all sorts of ways, Hitler’s regime was a profoundly theatrical exercise, from the great public displays at Nuremberg and the replanning of Berlin to the various private fantasies enacted by him and his close associates (Göring above all), and from the emotional roller coaster he created for his circle to the dangerously accelerated rate of military-industrial expansion with which he concealed the void at the centre of the German economy.

Theatre both presupposes and creates a public. In the anxiety and despair of post-Versailles Germany, there was a ready audience for the high drama of Nazism, including its scapegoating of demonic enemies within and without. And in turn, the shrill pitch of Hitler’s quasi-liturgies normalised a whole set of bizarre and fantastic constructions of reality. A N Wilson’s challenging novel Winnie and Wolf, a fantasia on Hitler’s relations with Winifred Wagner, culminates in a scene at the end of the war where refugees and destitute citizens in Bayreuth raid the wardrobe of the opera house and wander the streets dressed in moth-eaten costumes; it is an unforgettable metaphor for one of the effects of Hitlerian theatre. Ullrich leaves his readers contemplating the picture of a vast collective drama centred on a personality that was not – as some biographers have suggested – something of a cipher, but that of a fantasist on a grand scale, endowed with a huge literal and metaphorical budget for staging his work.

All of this prompts questions about how it is that apparently sophisticated political systems succumb to corporate nervous breakdowns. It is anything but an academic question in a contemporary world where theatrical politics, tribal scapegoating and variegated confusions about the rule of law are increasingly in evidence. On this last point, it is still shocking to realise how rapidly post-Versailles Germany came to regard violent public conflict between heavily armed militias as almost routine, and this is an important background to the embittered negotiations later on around the relation between Hitler’s Sturmabteilung and the official organs of state coercion. Ullrich’s insightful account of a de facto civil war in Bavaria in the early 1920s makes it mercilessly plain that any pretensions to a state monopoly of coercion in Germany in this period were empty.

Yet the idea of such a state monopoly is in fact essential to anything that could be called a legitimate democracy. In effect, the polity of the Third Reich “privatised” coer­cion: again and again in Ullrich’s book, in the struggles for power before 1933, we see Nazi politicians successfully bidding for control of the mechanisms of public order in the German regions, and more or less franchising public order to their own agencies. A classical democratic political philosophy would argue that the state alone has the right to use force because the state is the guarantor of every community’s and every individual’s access to redress for injury or injustice. If state coercion becomes a tool for any one element in the social complex, it loses legitimacy. It is bound up with the rule of law, which is about something more than mere majority consent. One way of reading the rise of Hitler and National Socialism is as the steady and consistent normalising of illegitimate or partisan force, undermining any concept of an independent guarantee of lawfulness in society. It is the deliberate dissolution of the idea of a Rechtsstaat, a law-governed state order that can be recognised by citizens as organised for their common and individual good. Rule by decree, the common pattern of Nazi governmental practice, worked in harness with law enforcement by a force that was essentially a toxic hybrid, combining what was left of an independent police operation with a highly organised party militia system.

So, one of the general imperatives with which Hitler’s story might leave us is the need to keep a clear sense of what the proper work of the state involves. Arguments about the ideal “size” of the state are often spectacularly indifferent to the basic question of what the irreducible functions of state authority are – and so to the question of what cannot be franchised or delegated to non-state actors (it is extraordinary that we have in the UK apparently accepted without much debate the idea that prison security can be sold off to private interests). This is not the same as saying that privatisation in general leads to fascism; the issues around the limits to state direction of an economy are complex. However, a refusal to ask some fundamental questions about the limits of “franchising” corrodes the idea of real democratic legitimacy – the legitimacy that arises from an assurance to every citizen that, whatever their convictions or their purchasing power, the state is there to secure their access to justice. And, connected with this, there are issues about how we legislate: what are the proper processes of scrutiny for legislation, and how is populist and short-view legislation avoided? The Third Reich offers a masterclass in executive tyranny, and we need not only robust and intelligent counter-models, but a clear political theory to make sense of and defend those models.

***

Theatre has always been an aspect of the political. But there are different kinds of theatre. In ancient Athens, the annual Dionysia festival included the performance of tragedies that forced members of the audience to acknowledge the fragility of the political order and encouraged them to meditate on the divine interventions that set a boundary to vendetta and strife. Classical tragedy is, as political theatre, the exact opposite of Hitlerian drama, which repeatedly asserted the solid power of the Reich, the overcoming of weakness and division by the sheer, innate force of popular will as expressed through the Führer.

Contemporary political theatre is not – outside the more nakedly totalitarian states – a matter of Albert Speer-like spectacle and affirmation of a quasi-divine leader; but it is increasingly the product of a populist-oriented market, the parading of celebrities for popular approval, with limited possibilities for deep public discussion of policies advanced, and an assumption that politicians will be, above all, performers. It is not – to warn once again against cliché and exaggeration – that celebrity culture in politics is a short route to fascism. But a political theatre that never deals with the fragility of the context in which law and civility operate, that never admits the internal flaws and conflicts of a society, and never allows some corporate opening-up to the possibilities of reconciliation and reparation, is one that exploits, rather than resolves our anxieties. And, as such, it makes us politically weaker, more confused and fragmented.

The extraordinary mixture of farce and menace in Donald Trump’s campaign is a potent distillation of all this: a political theatre, divorced from realism, patience and human solidarity, bringing to the surface the buried poisons of a whole system and threatening its entire viability and rationality. But it is an extreme version of the way in which modern technology-and-image-driven communication intensifies the risks that beset the ideals of legitimate democracy.

And – think of Trump once again – one of the most seductively available tricks of such a theatre is the rhetoric of what could be called triumphant victimhood: we are menaced by such and such a group (Jews, mig­rants, Muslims, Freemasons, international business, Zionism, Marxism . . .), which has exerted its vast but covert influence to destroy us; but our native strength has brought us through and, given clear leadership, will soon, once and for all, guarantee our safety from these nightmare aliens.

***

This is a rhetoric that depends on ideas of collective guilt or collective malignity: plots ascribed to the agency of some dangerous minority are brandished in order to tarnish the name of entire communities. The dark legacy of much popular Christian language about collective Jewish guilt for the death of Jesus could be translated without much difficulty into talk about the responsibility of Jews for the violence and poverty afflicting Germans in the 1920s. (Shadows of the same myths still affect the way in which – as recent reports suggest – sinister, vague talk about Zionism and assumptions of a collective Jewish guilt for the actions of various Israeli politicians can become part of a climate that condones anti-Semitic bullying, or text messages saying “Hitler had a point”, on university campuses.)

Granted that there is no shortage of other candidates for demonic otherness in Europe and the United States (witness Trump’s language about Muslims and Mexicans), the specific and abiding lesson of Nazi anti-Semitism is the twofold recognition of the ease with which actually disadvantaged communities can be cast in the role of all-powerful subverters, and the way in which the path to violent exclusion of one kind or another can be prepared by cultures of casual bigotry and collective anxiety or self-pity, dramatised by high-temperature styles of media communication.

Marie Luise Knott’s recent short book Unlearning With Hannah Arendt (2014) revisits the controversy over Arendt’s notorious characterisation of the mindset of Nazism as “the banality of evil”, and brilliantly shows how her point is to do with the erosion in Hitlerian Germany of the capacity to think, to understand one’s agency as answerable to more than public pressure and fashion, to hold to notions of honour and dignity independent of status, convention or influence – but also, ultimately, the erosion of a sense of the ridiculous. The victory of public cliché and stereotype is, in Arendt’s terms, a protection against reality, “against the claim on our thinking attention that all events and facts make by virtue of their existence”, as she memorably wrote in The Life of the Mind. Hitler was committed to the destruction of anything that challenged the simple self-identity and self-justification of the race and the nation; hence, as Ullrich shows in an acutely argued chapter of Hitler: a Biography, the Führer’s venom against the churches, despite their (generally) embarrassingly lukewarm resistance to the horrors of the Reich. The problem was that the churches’ rationale entailed just that accountability to more than power and political self-identity that Nazi philosophy treated as absolute. They had grounds for thinking Nazism not only evil, but absurd. Perhaps, then, one of the more unexpected questions we are left with by a study of political nightmare such as Ullrich’s excellent book is how we find the resources for identifying the absurd as well as for clarifying the grounds of law and honour.

The threats now faced by “developed” democracy are not those of the 1920s and 1930s; whatever rough beasts are on their way are unlikely to have the exact features of Hitler’s distinctive blend of criminality and melodrama. But this does not mean that we shouldn’t be looking as hard as we can at the lessons to be learned from the collapse of political legality, the collective panics and myths, the acceptance of delusional and violent public theatre that characterised Hitler’s Germany. For evil to triumph, what is necessary is for societies to stop thinking, to stop developing an eye for the absurd as well as the corrupt in language and action, public or private.

Hitler: a Biography – Volume I: Ascent by Volker Ullrich is published by the Bodley Head

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism