Recently, the day after the London Bridge terrorist attack, feeling depressed and under siege (I live in London, not far away from the incident) I posted a note to a friend on Facebook about how it’s important not to change our way of life in response to horrors like this – to not give in to the temptation to hide away, initiate racial profiling, or give up our civil rights. This seemed perfectly sensible and non-controversial to me, after all, it is the goal of ISIS terrorists to escalate tensions in the west, to polarise people and prompt violent showdowns between Christians and Muslims. Why give them exactly what they want?
Someone else on FB, an old acquaintance who I had not maintained contact with, reading my post on my friend’s feed, interpreted my comment to mean that I was laissez-faire about the inevitability of terrorism – that I had accepted it as a fact of life, to be endured and not opposed. He injected himself into the conversation and proceeded to whack me over the head (metaphorically) with a blustering outrage-filled appeal to emotion: “Would you feel that way if you were the parent of one of those kids killed by terrorists?”
What kind of asshole says something like that? A big one.
I found it extraordinary that this person, who I knew still lived in the same small town that I had grown up in, safe and sound many thousands of miles away, felt perfectly entitled to act as if he had the right to lecture me about the risk to my own child’s life, the day after a terrorist attack that had just occurred less than 2 miles away from my home. I pointed this out to him, and unsurprisingly, he ratcheted things up. I was told that I, like all liberals, was callous to all the “dead children,” and blind to the truth about Muslims and terrorists.
He then helpfully revealed some of those truths to me – that a “Muslim friend” of his had revealed to him that the Koran (which he said he has never read) was very clear that all non-Muslims “are infidels that eventually will be destroyed [and] the Muslims will rule the Earth till the End of Days. Peaceful Muslims have actually decided not to live by the exact writing of the Koran.”
The entire exchange just made me upset. Aside from the ignorance and racism being displayed, how could anyone be such an asshole to someone else living in the shadow of a fresh terror attack? Berating someone on Facebook with rants about dead children when terrorists have just launched an attack near your home, while you live thousands of miles away makes you an asshole. Right?
But was I really right? Maybe this person was feeling more afraid then I was, specifically because he was so far away. If you’ve never had to live with the spectre of terrorism, maybe that made it worse. This got me thinking, who was I to be angry and offended? I hadn’t actually been there at London Bridge on the night of the attack and no one that I personally knew was hurt or killed. Did I have any more credibility than this guy to discuss my opinions on terrorism? Maybe not. Terrorism and the fear of it, has a ripple effect. That’s what it’s meant to do – sow mistrust, fear and discord. In that sense, we are all victims of terrorism no matter where it happens. Terrorists are evil, miserable people, not just because they murder innocents, but because they want us to be evil and miserable too. They want us to be assholes.
But I don’t want to be an asshole.
Maybe this person, sitting in his village, far away from most of what happens in the world, had just as much moral authority as me to talk about terrorism. It’s not like being in close proximity to terrorism grants with it a special status that makes your opinions more valid. But it also seems to me that lecturing someone about terrorism, without regard to who you are speaking to, and what context you and they are in, makes you susceptible to saying things that only an asshole would say.
In a 1964 ruling, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, when asked to make a ruling on how to define pornography, famously said “I know it when I see it.” We usually use the same kind of standard to judge whether someone is being an asshole or not – we know it when we see it. In this case, I feel that I was right to see this as a case of someone being an asshole.
Even more important than the ability to recognise when other people are being assholes, is the ability to make sure you’re not being an asshole yourself. The world would be a lot better, and people a lot less angry and afraid, especially after a terrorist attack, if everyone took a moment to ask themselves: “Am I being an asshole?” before they posted something provocative on social media.
But how to know? It’s easy to judge others, but tough to judge ourselves. I believe the answer lies in using assholes to form a kind of litmus test. Basically, observe what asshole people do and say online in the aftermath of a terrorist attack, and then commit yourself to doing and saying the opposite.
Here are some examples:
Politics can usually wait. People who are assholes are really quick to comment on terrorist attacks – too quick. They often form opinions before any of the facts are in.
Avoid emotional arguments, especially if you have no standing. Assholes often say things that translate into: “If you don’t feel the exact same way as me, and you don’t support the same laws and policies I support, you’re just as guilty as the terrorists, and the blood of all their victims is on your hands!”
Assholes often use the phrase “religion of peace” in an attempt to be pointedly ironic or satirical in the aftermath of a terrorist attack.
“Those willing to sacrifice liberty for security, deserve neither.” I understand the impulse to want to feel safe, and I sympathise, but assholes are always a little too eager to give up their inalienable rights and start shredding the constitution. They say things like: “If you haven’t done anything wrong, you’ve got nothing to be afraid of.”
Assholes are obsessed with talking about Sharia law, and “the real meaning” of Islam. They often make declarations about how Islam “isn’t a religion – it’s a political system.”
White people are “crazy,” brown people are terrorists. If you only express outrage at mass murders committed by Muslims, but are silent, or dismissive of attacks by Christians or neo-Nazis, then you’re definitely an asshole.
Facebook-shaming is not a good idea. If you go online to post something meant to shame people worried about terrorism close to home, because they’re not just as worried about terrorism happening on the other side of the world, I get the point of what you’re trying to say, but you’re still kind of acting like an asshole.
Assholes believe that more guns are the solution to every problem involving violence. They push their pro-gun agenda onto every tragedy.
Assholes engage in conspiracy theories and talk about false flag operations. They call people “sheeple” and command everyone to “wake up.”
“One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” Assholes will often engage in moral equivalencies in the wake of a terrorist attack in an attempt to diminish or excuse the slaughter.
Assholes in the UK read the Daily Mail and in the USA they watch Fox News.
Assholes are quick to criticise, and slow to offer support. An example would be President Donald Trump’s twitter attacks on London Mayor Sadiq Khan.
Actually, come to think of it, Donald Trump has committed virtually asshole act on this list in response to terror attacks. He tweets before he has the facts, he trades in conspiracy theories, he posts about wanting people in bars to have guns to shoot back at terrorists, he’s slow to condemn neo-Nazi terrorists and seems almost pleased when Muslims are the culprits. He’s the ultimate asshole.
He’s also the kind of person who likely has never spent one single moment of his life asking himself whether or not he might be an asshole, which is one of the surest signs of all that he is one.
He’s a living breathing paragon of asshole-ness and perfect evidence that my system of asshole recognition works.