Saturday, 3 September 2011

Mindless Summer

In news that seems to have barely registered outside the island, 98 containers full of explosives left untended in the elements (in direct and extreme heat, mostly) for three years, right next to Cyprus’ main power station at Mari, finally blasted it to extinction on 11 July. It's been reported that it was the world's largest ever peacetime non-nuclear explosion. The fact that only 13 people were killed is largely due to it having happened at 6am, when the scores of restaurants, beaches etc nearby were empty.

As it was, it resulted in the whole country (minus the tourist areas...) experiencing frequent power shortages, whose impact has been exacerbated by the usual summer heat. The financial consequences are estimated to be severe, particularly for small businesses, with an already shaking economy looking as if heading for trouble. There’s an element of exaggeration and sensationalism in the reporting, as well as a heightened sense of tragedy ingrained in the local psyche – but this should not distract from the several levels of mindlessness that brought such an event to pass. The subsequent government denials, political point-scoring, daily and increasingly bombastic protests and emotionally-charged tales of heroism or cover-up operations reported in the media or via word of mouth are a form of explosion of a different kind: that of a simmering dissatisfaction with and mistrust of those in power to manage public affairs fairly.

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The riots that started in Tottenham and spread elsewhere in London and other English cities a month later were similarly triggered by a specific incident, though their roots are diverse. Looting is an extreme but logical conclusion of a certain form of capitalism. And parallel to examining policing practices and ways of delivering justice (and current rhetoric seems to be pointing to disproportionate measures against even those suspected to have been involved) a core question to be pondered is what might have allowed the various strands of people who took part to justify their involvement to themselves – consciously or otherwise. Time ought to be taken over this. It’s not well-thought out or in any way constructive having the matter morally resolved simply by blaming ‘sheer criminality’ and ‘mindless thuggery’. And it should be clear that nothing is gained by plunging already disaffected people into further marginalisation.

Violence is rarely mindless though it's inarticulate as an expression of frustration. And this was hardly an apolitical event. I read that some in the British government are calling for the power to shut down social networking in times of unrest. How ideologically removed would such an action be from those ascribed to the Chinese authorities, often criticised for (among other things) Internet-spying and firewall-installing in an effort to silence dissidence (the highlighted case of Ai Weiwei’s detention comes to mind)? And what of the widely-praised uprisings of the Arab Spring – with David Cameron recently claiming a share of the credit for the Libyan rebellion didn't they depend on unrest co-ordinated through social networking? The implication is of a strain of opportunism as well as double-standards in the machinations of current government and this is perhaps what ought to be eradicated first. Cutting social services, withdrawing benefits or council housing as punishment, or attempting to ban Twitter are re-actions as inarticulate as the riots themselves.

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