Remembering  Bourke Street

Many people would remember the tragic event in the Bourke Street Mall in Melbourne on 20th January 2017. The male driver of a motor vehicle intentionally drove down through the Mall, aiming his car at as many people as possible, killing a 10-year-old girl, a three-month-old baby boy, a 25-year-old man, a 22-year-old woman, a 33-year-old man, and a 33-year-old woman, as well as injuring more than 20 people.

The trauma that he caused was overwhelming, and for many, he caused unspeakable suffering. It all seemed so senseless. The victims and the perpetrator were not known to each other. There appeared to be no motive for the provocation, and yet many people’s lives changed forever that day. Sadly, a not dissimilar incident occurred later that year on 21st December, in the same city, not far from this tragic incident.

Once again, a senseless act committed by a lone male that killed one person and injured a further 17 people. Whilst neither acts were defined as terrorism (and rightly so as they were not motivated in that way), their modus operandi is used by terrorists around the world as we have witnessed in the UK, Germany, the US and other parts of Europe.

What happens when we lose our sense of being safe in the world?

Incidents such as these can erode our collective sense of security, and give rise to levels of fear that have new implications in regards to what it means to really feel safe. This happens largely because we perceive such events and those who perpetrated them as ‘evil’. Our response as a nation is, very often, to look to how such threats can be negated in the future, and to find new ways to ensure nothing ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ happens again. Doing everything practically possible to remove the threat of harm is the obligation, not only of the sovereign government, but of every citizen in society. 

In my view, we need, as a society, to revisit our understanding of evil and in doing so, seek out a more holistic version of what it means to feel ‘safe’.  Let me use the Bourke Street incident as an example of what I mean.

A choice of seeing evil or kindness

On the 21 December 2017, a young man, Henry Dow, wrote the following piece in relation to the Bourke Street Mall incident that was picked up by mainstream media.

‘We have all seen images and opinions flood the media over the past 24 hours. If you feel like shaking your head and feeling sad for the state of humanity, I implore you: Don’t.
There was no evil on Bourke street yesterday; one sick young man did a terrible thing, and hundreds responded with the love and sense of community that makes Melbourne such a beautiful city, and Victoria such a great State.

There was only kindness in the voices of the police who came to relieve us.
I felt only love when an older man hugged me, having just told a father he had lost a daughter.
Many images and sounds will stay with me much longer than I might like, but I am glad to have seen, and hope I never forget, just how brave and loving strangers can be.
Daniel Andrews our capital city owes a great debt of gratitude to Lou for what he did yesterday. 

I love this city.’

– Henry Dow 21 January 2017

See no evil

Lou, the gentleman referenced above, was a taxi driver, whom upon seeing what had just transpired, came to the aid of others. One of those others was Henry. Henry had also witnessed the event and had stepped in to help. However, in doing so, he simply wasn’t prepared for the visually confronting images of the trauma that had been inflicted on others. In short, he very quickly became overwhelmed. Lou, noticing Henry’s distress, as well as his willingness to step up and step in to help, provided him with some words of comfort and guided him in treating the victims. He took Henry “under his wing” whilst at the same time doing whatever he could for the victim. Lou had experienced similar traumatic events in his life as he had served as a soldier within a theatre of war overseas. So, for Lou, the injuries were not unfamiliar. Together they did what they could to assist, and, for Henry, he was reassured by the experience and generosity of a total stranger.

Both what Henry said and what both Henry and Lou did have an eloquent profundity to them. Firstly, they willingly, and without regard for themselves, stepped into to a highly traumatic and emotionally charged situation and offered their compassion to other human beings. Secondly, Henry cast no judgment. Unlike so many who had moved straight to condemnation of the driver, Henry saw it differently. He could see the suffering of everyone, even the driver. Certainly, the actions of the driver were worthy of condemnation, as they brought immense harm and suffering to many people, but as Henry rightly observed, whilst he could see what I would summarise as foolishness, he could see no evil.

So often we are motivated to label people and their actions as ‘evil’, and often, as ‘pure evil’. But what do we mean by evil? If we mean the presence of something, then we imply that there is something to get rid of, to fight, to extinguish, to expunge. Our language, our images, our mythologies, our literature, our faiths, are full of that ‘something’, whether it be the devil, the evil fiend, the Dark Knight, the Shadow, or any other image one can conjure up to explain something that rational thought, reason and logic fail to explain. We often label senseless acts as evil simply by the fact that we cannot rationally explain them. Immanuel Kant labelled it radical evil because it existed outside the bounds of will and reason. In other words, evil cannot be explained because it exists beyond these modes of thought, which is why we need metaphors, images and mythologies in attempting to explain something that is otherwise unexplainable. This is what makes mythologies/metaphors/allegories so powerful. For if it were explainable, it would have a logic, or a reason, or a rationale to its action and therefore, albeit we may not agree with it, a legitimacy, at least in the minds of some.

Take terrorism as an example. Acts of terrorism do two things: play to humanity’s greatest fear, our fear of death, and play to our greatest desire, the desire for life.  The two go hand in hand. Philosophy, mythology and theology have much to say about these two human sufferings, far too much to say in this short blog. 

But for now, let’s accept them as a truth (I’ll cover them in a later blog). These acts defy the sensibilities, ethics and morals of the vast majority of the worlds people, and, as mentioned above, because of their seemingly senseless nature, we label them as ‘evil’ or ‘pure evil’. Such acts totally disregard the dignity, safety and respect for human life, irrespective of class, age, gender, race, sexual orientation or belief. Our desire to pursue the removal of them as evil is so pervasive that we structure, fund, resource and empower our societies to fight this scourge, and we predicate our safety upon its removal. Ultimately, we do this because we are so fearful of death and so desirous of life, and because terrorism understands this fear and desire, it leverages from them and robs us of our ability to live a fully human life.

Rethinking what we thought we knew

But what if evil was not something, but rather, existed as a ‘lack’ of something? That is, what if evil was an ‘absence’? An absence of love, compassion, consideration, kindness, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, and so on. To summarise, what if evil existed as a lack of ‘virtue’? Would there be anything left to fight?

And what if safety was more than threat negation? In a more holistic light, safety says that when ignorance rises, people do foolish things and harm comes your way, I will be there to catch you; that your happiness is at least as important as mine. Safety says that you and I share in the sacredness of a precious human life and all of its experiences. Safety says that anger and all of its manifestations of harm have no place in our society irrespective of the provocations; and that from all adversity arises the opportunity to show great compassion – the strong desire to prevent, remove or sit with the suffering of another, and lead them back to a safe haven.

When we rediscover this aspect of ourselves and our society and rebuild our confidence, harm and suffering through violence such as terrorism will lose its hold on our fear of death and our desire for life, for it is our capacity for compassion that liberates us from that very fear and desire that harm and violence seek to exploit.

Pursuing the destruction of evil inevitably leads to violence (often through retribution) as has been witnessed since the dawn of time, and particularly referenced within the doctrines of faith. It has also motivated global politics. Yet despite this pursuit, evil still exists, and great human suffering perpetuates. The death rates in pursuit of the destruction of evil are staggering! They are in fact higher than the death rates arising from the terrorist acts themselves.

Changing the focus of our efforts

There is certainly a need to prevent, mitigate, alleviate, respond to and recover from the effects of foolish and harmful actions arising from the ‘absence’ of virtue within society. To that extent, those things that our governments and their partners do for us to promote safety remains valid, and an important part of our modern societies. But rather than wishing them to engage in an endless fight against evil, would we not be better off changing our core motivation from the destruction of evil by pursuing two principle things. Firstly, prioritising and turning our efforts to alleviate the sufferings that foolish and harmful actions cause, by nurturing and developing our innate capacity to be compassionate human beings and to actively assist those who suffer. Lou and Henry so eloquently demonstrated this.

Secondly, rather than pursuing the destruction of evil, we instead turn our efforts to pursuing the reduction and removal of harm and suffering. That pursuit may still entail the use of force, even lethal force in extremis in dealing with significantly harmful actions, but the motivation sustaining that pursuit changes. Being motivated by fighting and seeking to destroy evil (as an ‘absence’ or a ‘lack’, which by implication does not exist and therefore cannot be destroyed) introduces unnecessary harm and suffering, and is likely to perpetuate the very suffering we are trying to free ourselves from. Death and injury rates certainly validate this view. However, being motivated to reduce harm and suffering through our individual and collective compassionate nature not only radically alters the way we see the world, but also changes the world itself.

Becoming wise to ourselves

To do this we need to develop a wisdom about the true causes of suffering. If I were to reflect on Henry’s observation of the Bourke Street Mall driver and his extreme foolishness, I could also add that he acted out of extreme selfishness, and I suspect most, if not all people, would agree.

Selfishness, or, in other words, the self-centred ego, establishes the root cause of all human suffering. When we make the world all about us and our needs to the exclusion of all others, when we surrender to our anger, our attachments and our ignorance in a false pursuit of attempting to find our happiness and to avoid our suffering, not only do we suffer, but we cause great suffering to others through our non-virtuous actions of body, speech and mind. No one escapes this truth. We all suffer from these root causes, whether they play out through actions as blatant as the Bourke Street Mall driver, or more subtly so.

Thus, when we stop and reflect on what causes ourselves to suffer, and we extend that understanding to others who suffer the same afflictions just like us (albeit to varying degrees), it changes the way we approach harm and suffering. Instead of blindly attacking an ‘absence’ or a ‘lack’ out of ignorance, we have the opportunity to establish the basis of our compassion by using our wisdom. We come to appreciate the true causes of harm and suffering and the strong desire to remove them, both from ourselves, and from others, in any practical way possible. We also come to develop a relatedness between ourselves and others. No longer is the perceived enemy ‘pure evil’. Rather, they are human beings who are also suffering the same root cause afflictions (selfishness leading to attachments, anger, and ignorance in an attempt to find happiness and avoid suffering), albeit their actions may exhibit more harmfully. That is, their afflictions may be far more intense than most of us, as was the case of the Bourke Street Mall driver.

In understanding this, firstly, we can respond to harmful actions more wisely and compassionately. We will be able to see the suffering of the other person as well as the suffering that their actions are causing. We will also be able to see the same suffering within ourselves, and with practice, develop a wisdom to how we respond to the harmful action of another. In other words, we will become more mindful about our actions and their effects when dealing with the harmful actions of others, rather than unskilfully pursuing the destruction of something that is an absence, even if this means having to act forcefully or lethally in extremis to reduce any further harm and suffering.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, we re-establish our ability to live a truly meaningful life. By progressively surrendering the causes of our own suffering, and learning to live more compassionately, we begin to liberate ourselves from both our fear of death and our desire for life. Hence, over time, terrorism and violence will reduce its hold over us and our societies, and progressively we will achieve the very safety that we so earnestly strive for.  What Lou and Henry did on that fateful day of the 20 December 2017 eloquently exemplifies what we are all capable of doing. Henry’s observations the following day reminds us of how we might choose to view the world differently.