The Virtue of Saying Nothing

23rd June 2020

What are we to say about the murder of three friends, having a drink on a pleasant afternoon, in Reading, by a Libyan called Khairi Saadallah?

It is a feature of 24 hour news culture, and the punditry that sustains it, that following any terrorist attack there is a rush to offer a “hot take”. There is a very small window of opportunity within which one can deliver such an original view, before the issue begins to fade away and the press and public lose interest.

Sometimes, not that often, an expert will offer some information which is not generally available. They make a connection which has been overlooked. A perspective which has not yet been considered will be aired. Possibly, the event offers an opportunity to discuss the expert’s relevant research.

More often, however, there is nothing to say. The facts, as they gradually emerge, are efficiently collated by the press. But, in the immediate aftermath of an incident, much is still confused. We may have heard an interesting rumour: but its truth is uncertain. We may have half-developed a thesis about some aspect of the attack, but know that we may soon be proven wrong about it. We might have been told something in confidence, which is highly relevant, but which we cannot repeat. None of us want to say anything which might have the effect of prejudicing a trial.

When pushed to say something, experts tend to default to their comfort zone. We say what we usually say. If you think that terrorism is mostly a mental health issue, then we say that. If we are outraged by the underplaying of homophobia as a possible motive in the murder of three gay men, then that’s our talking point. We voice platitudes about the need for communities to come together in the face of hatred. We make facile comparisons to the circumstances surrounding past attacks. If we’re really at a loss for something helpful to say, we may complain about the media reporting, the language used by the press or politicians, or the choice of illustrative photographs in news reports.

Speculation and platitudes are the botox and filler of the news cycle. They smooth over complexity, and temporarily plug the holes of our ignorance. The provide the illusion of certainty.

There is an interesting and important story to tell behind every terrorist attack. However, it will usually take some time before all of that information is available, and a proper assessment can take place. Indeed, the purpose of a criminal trial – if the defendant survives the attack – or an inquest in other circumstances is the forensic examination of that evidence, followed by its evaluation. Sometimes, it is necessary to wait until that process has been completed before drawing any grand conclusion.

At the moment, this is the state of play in relation to the Reading attacks. Saadallah may have been homeless. He may have had mental health problems. These problems may have been related to drug use. He may have converted to Christianity. He may have wanted to go and fight in Syria. He may have previously fought in Libya. He may have visited a cousin in Manchester who might have known the Manchester jihadist bomber, Abedi. He might have been motivated to kill three gay men, knowing that they were gay, by hatred of gay people.

Or not.

We don’t currently know anything for certain about the Reading attack. And sometimes, that is just how things are.