An unwanted display of brutality and violence

Behind all the talk of human rights, attitudes utterly beyond the pale are quietly taking hold
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The Independent Online

It was probably not a great idea, after a time of family bereavement, to go to a football match. Noise, abuse, passion, unpleasant hand gestures, some directed at the 23 men on the pitch, but most at opposing fans, were hardly going to reflect all that is noble and lasting in the human spirit. But it was as good a therapy as any, so my son and I went to watch the game between Queens Park Rangers and Leeds.

It was probably not a great idea, after a time of family bereavement, to go to a football match. Noise, abuse, passion, unpleasant hand gestures, some directed at the 23 men on the pitch, but most at opposing fans, were hardly going to reflect all that is noble and lasting in the human spirit. But it was as good a therapy as any, so my son and I went to watch the game between Queens Park Rangers and Leeds.

After a week during which the business of the outside world had faded to a distant, meaningless hum, the match was always going to be a jarring experience but it turned out to be startling in a way that I had not anticipated. Our half-time entertainment was provided by the army. Four sets of mats were dragged on to the pitch and laid out before each grandstand. Beside the mats, which were about the size of a boxing ring, were laid what looked like a baseball bat and a smaller wooden weapon with a rope handle.

All this seemed marginally more interesting than QPR's normal half-time entertainment, which involves watching fans take turns at placing their heads on a bollard, running around 10 times, and then dizzily trying to kick a ball into the goal.

The army game turned out to be equally futile, but rather less innocent. Around each mat, four muscular squaddies took up position. As a sergeant type gave the order through a microphone, they began their demonstration. It was hardly the ultimate in military drill or sophistication. First the men wrestled, and threw each other to the ground, martial-arts fashion. Then they picked up the batons and pretended to attack one another.

This was not an exhibition of self-defence, but a mocked-up ruckus of extreme brutality and violence. When one of the men lay prostrate, his assailant would act out - very convincingly, it must be said - hitting him hard across the back with the baseball bat, then kicking him in the guts or nuts. At first, the fans watched the display with some bemusement but soon entered the spirit of it, applauding the soldiers as they pretended to knock the hell out of one another. Particularly appreciated was the moment when the QPR mascot, a man in a cat suit and wearing a club shirt, joined the action and floored a couple of the soldiers.

By any normal standards, an exhibition of random, ill-organised aggression involving batons and boots was a distinctly perverse way of entertaining a football crowd. This was always going to be a tense occasion, and neither sets of fans have perfect records of friendly behaviour. Outside the ground, there was a very large presence of police in riot gear, on horses and with dogs.

Yet no one, least of all the police, seemed remotely concerned that something of a mixed message was being delivered by the show at half-time. It seemed to be understood that, while violence between fans was unacceptable, the Abu Ghraib show that was being enacted by the men in khaki was nothing more than a reassuring reminder of how our boys could sort out the enemy should the occasion arise.

Of course, the precise identity of that enemy has become rather blurred over the past few months. Not so long ago, it was terrorists; now, if the circumstances demand, it can be almost anyone who is not from Western Europe.

Opening the newspapers after a week of self-imposed news blackout, it is difficult not to be struck by a new note of bellicosity, distrust and sheer nastiness which is not entirely explained by the electoral campaign.

Once all political parties were circumspect as to how they deployed arguments over race, nationalism and immigration; now, even if coded language is used, it is standard.

Extraordinarily, issues of anti-Semitism have begun to emerge in the news. On every occasion, from Labour's pre-election Shylock poster to last week's attack by the Muslim Public Affairs Committee on the Labour MP for Rochdale for being "a Jewish member of the Labour Friends of Israel", there is hand-wringing and denial but the stench of racism remains in the air.

Elsewhere, what was once unthinkable has become part of everyday political debate. This weekend, the urbane, civilised, grown-up voice of a senior Sunday Telegraph columnist Alasdair Palmer was to be heard speaking up for the use of torture. So long as it is not British hands applying the electrodes to genitalia or removing toenails, "our ability to frustrate fundamentalist terrorism can depend on torture" is the way the argument goes.

Taken together, these are alarming and sinister developments. Behind all the talk of human rights and debates over the rights and wrongs of political correctness, attitudes that have been utterly beyond the pale over the past five decades are quietly taking hold. In this new climate of fear, the spectacle of a few army heavies showing how they would sort out an insurgent is not only accepted by the crowd at a football match but is watched with a certain respect.

After the half-time exhibition, the match resumed. A fan a few rows in front of us had decided that the Leeds goalkeeper was, in the words that he screamed on several occasions at the top of his voice, "a dirty fucking yid". Around him, the other fans smiled indulgently.

terblacker@aol.com

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