Deborah Orr: Men must abandon their heroic fantasies

Young men are still being slaughtered at bus stops because of the colour of their skin
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The Independent Online

Anti-immigration campaigners have been quick to take advantage of the fact that London's second batch of Tube bombers were not British, and are busily pressing their case by suggesting that there are nearly a million illegal immigrants in Britain. (One less to fret about, I guess, since hard-working electrician Jean Charles de Menezes returned home to be buried.)

What does this really have to do though with the issue in hand: that of deadly violence on our streets? Is the implication that gentle Anglo-Saxons are not attracted by violence? It didn't look like that when one was parked in front of Sunday's Panorama on BBC1, in which a reporter conducted in-depth interviews with half-a-dozen extremely violent young offenders. They, mostly so white they were luminous, talked about using weapons incredibly casually in order to sort out the most crude of tribal disputes. Experts opined that violent males were getting younger and more disengaged from the depravity of their acts.

One can only assume that the axe-wielding person who killed 18-year-old Anthony Walker was of that ilk. Despite the shock being expressed at the brutal senselessness of this crime, there is also a hint that it bears a kind of darkly favourable comparison with the Stephen Lawrence case. In 1993, officers attending the scene of the crime were so disengaged from black youths that they did not even examine Stephen, to learn that he was bleeding to death from a knife wound. This time, there is no indication that tacit assumptions for a moment cast Anthony as trouble-maker rather than victim. His ghastly murder is accepted as a racist attack. This shift in attitude is generally considered to be progress.

It is progress, of course, though from a deeply subterranean baseline. Young men are still being slaughtered at bus stops because of the colour of their skin. But nowadays the rest of society is happy to acknowledge that this was indeed the motivation. As a society we agree that both violence and racism are unacceptable. Yet we still appear to be mired in both.

Grimly, the basic explanation for this is that it is natural for primates to behave in this way. Jane Goodall's studies of chimpanzees in Gombe, in Tanzania, confirmed that chimpanzees splitting into two groups from one large group would eventually wage war against each other until one group had been wiped out. Terence Kealey, the vice-chancellor of Buckingham University this week compared Goodall's study with a study conducted by members of the psychology departments of New York and Harvard University, and published in Nature last week.

Testing how long a variety of people took to overcome their fear of portraits they had at first been shown alongside electric shocks, researchers found that white Americans overcame their fear of white faces first, and black Americans did the same with black faces. Interestingly, subjects "who had dated members of the other race were swifter to lose their racial fear". The implication, surely, is that integration will end racial fear and hate, while segregation - the segregation of swinging border controls and of multiculturalism - increases it.

What about the other problem - male violence? One of the telling insights offered by Panorama was that some of the boys, now serving long prison sentences, had begun their violent activities as defenders of their home turf - usually run-down council estates. In the case of Muslim terrorists, one can see that identification with all Muslim parts of the world as "their patch" would have offered a powerful motivating influence to a young man prone to such a mindset.

But just as striking in the programme was the expert testimony that suggested that the most violent children, and the most inured to their violence, were the ones who had been brought up without fathers, or with violent fathers. To use the cliché employed in the documentary, they had no "strong male role models".

It's a particularly powerful coincidence, therefore, that a number of the people involved in the group of alleged would-be bombers under investigation are Somali. In 1996, an investigation into Somali communities in Sheffield found they were among the most disadvantaged in health, education, employment and housing. Further study has led observers to the conclusion, as reported by pressure group Fathers Direct, that "Somali fathers in the UK are increasingly emotionally or physically absent from their families". The loss of both their patriarchal identity as "head of the family" and their "strong sense of identity while they were in Somalia, through clans" has combined to trigger "loss of identity resulting in hopelessness".

Yet while this developing alienation might have been easier to recognise and acknowledge in the small Somali community, the truth is that it is just as easy to see a similar evolution among many men living in Western cultures, including Anglo-Saxons. It may seem like a frivolous point, but since film is such an important tool of communication, it's worth pointing out that the subtext of the latest Stephen Spielberg blockbuster, the War Of The Worlds, could be read as saying the same thing.

Our hero Tom Cruise starts out as a divorced father emotionally absent from his two children who live with their mother and her new partner. He's at the beginning of a set-to-be-disastrous weekend with them when, luckily, Martians arrive and Tom is able to abandon such fripperies as providing food and emotional sustenance for his offspring, and instead honing up his human identification and engaging in a battle situation geared at preserving the mother-children unit. At one point, he is forced to kill a man with his bare hands in order to save his daughter.

I watched this epic with a dawning realisation that wars are glorified by men who want to have a cast-iron excuse (protecting the family unit) for getting out of childcare. Men miss the awe they are held in when they fight in wars, which is why anti-social boys carry knives to defend their shitty council estate, or blow themselves and others up in support of others far away in Iraq who are doing the same.

The point is that our best interests as humans lie in strengthening our similarities rather than out differences. Human wars are now too dangerous, too intrusive on our other complex systems of survival, to be a sensible arena for the expression of masculinity (not that they ever were). What we do need is for men to take up the challenge of the 21st century, and become nurturing fathers instead of heroic warriors (if only in their heads). That way, and in others, we can all become equal citizens of the world.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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