Good and bad responses to what happenedin Brussels…

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MATTHEW Doyle of Croydon in South London became instantly notorious earlier this week following the atrocity in Brussels. How this happened is a lesson for our times.

Doyle allegedly claimed on Twitter than he had confronted a Muslim woman to ask her to “explain Brussels” – and that ‘allegedly’ is in there because he has now been charged under the Public Order Act.

He is accused of posting allegedly racist comments and will appear in court tomorrow.

The Metropolitan police said the 46-year-old had “been charged under section 19 of the Public Order Act 1986; publishing or distributing written material which is threatening, abusive or insulting, likely or intended to stir up racial hatred”.

Doyle is a partner at a talent and PR agency, and so presumably knows about the ins and outs of publicity; he certainly generated a lot for himself.

There are many possible reactions to the horror of what happened in Brussels – and happened four months earlier in Paris, and as happens somewhere in the world almost every day, sometimes without us even noticing.

The reaction that seems the most powerful, the most plangent lies in the simple displays of respect, the chalked comments in the street, the candles and other displays in memory of those who died. It is hard not to be moved by these makeshift shrines, or by the quiet dignity of those who light a candle or leave a message.

True, we didn’t used to carry on like that, and such displays have been ‘blamed’ on the Diana effect, although that is a while ago. Perhaps that is just the way we are now.

Set against such communal heartbreak – and what happened in Brussels was truly heart-breaking – is the non-stop splurge of social media, some of it informative and very affecting; some of it just plain idiotic and hateful.

The informative side of social media is a positive in our lives, I’d say; the rolling reports on Facebook from friends or acquaintances in Brussels brought home what was happening, and let people know they were unharmed.

So that’s the good. The bad lies in the banal and the ridiculous, such as a man allegedly asking a Muslim woman to “explain” Brussels, or any other micro-brained display of ignorance. People who go on Facebook and Twitter and the like to splurge out hatred and ignorance are the worst sort of modern fool, but we seem to be stuck with this now. Once they would have mouthed off in the pub or to their loved ones; now they have a platform and can project outwards, spraying the world with their views.

Another aspect to this is that social media has apparently removed all trace of emotional reticence: no longer is it enough to shed a quiet tear in front of the TV news – unless you emote publicly you are somehow seen as not caring.

I still find this a puzzle, because surely for every well-meaning person turning their Facebook picture into the Belgian or French flag, there is someone else who keeps their sorrow to themselves. Sometimes it seems we confuse having a feeling with having to tell everyone about it on Facebook.

Then there is the political and media reaction to consider. Naturally enough, such attacks produce panic and paranoia from politicians who immediately talk of war – and in doing so help give the twisted terrorists exactly the publicity they want, backed up by sensationalist TV and newspaper coverage.

None of this is surprising, in the sense that something horribly sensational had happened – yet the most powerful defence against militants who wish to upend our lives is to carry on as we have always done, not to change in response to their ‘demands’.

In his Guardian column on this topic, former Times editor Simon Jenkins provides an interesting quote from the Belfast academic Richard English in his manual Terrorism: How To Respond. He writes that English “defines the threat to democracy as not the ‘limited danger’ of death and destruction. It is the danger ‘of provoking ill-judged, extravagant and counterproductive state responses’”.

Something to remember this week.

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