The fatal attraction of violence

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The queue of people who would like an explanation from Nato gets longer. Amnesty International has repeatedly asked to see the rules of engagement drawn up by the alliance, without success. The Chinese, whose embassy in Belgrade was mistakenly bombed, not only asked for an apology but rioted in the streets. Last week the Swedish prime minister demanded an explanation after a bomb shattered windows in the residence of his country's ambassador to Belgrade. Even Spain, which is a Nato member, has expressed anxiety about how its representative's home in the Yugoslav capital came to be damaged.

Yet the bombing goes on, ensuring that we are confronted with pictures of gutted buildings and horribly mutilated bodies. Even when the wounded are relegated to an inside page, they do not stay there for long; Nato is making ghastly "mistakes" on such a regular basis that the war keeps returning to the front page. One of the events that drove it off was the Soho nail bomb, which killed three people and injured scores of others. Before that, nail bombs in Brixton and Brick Lane produced dramatic pictures.

Some readers have complained about the use by the media of so many images of death and destruction. I think these readers are wrong, in the same way that I have little patience with columnists who write that they are too upset to follow the course of the war in the Balkans. The bombardment of Yugoslavia is being carried out in our name, by a prime minister who says he is motivated by humanitarian concerns. I do not think the option of turning a blind eye is a valid one. Europe has become a vastly more dangerous place, with long-term consequences that none of us can predict.

What does concern me is the effect of this heightened tension on disturbed individuals. Violence is horrifying but it is also exciting, as we can see from the behaviour of spectators at any boxing tournament. Tony Blair's strictures against the media, when he complained about "refugee fatigue", ignored the possibility that violent acts by the state, legitimately reported by the press, normalise bloodshed by bringing it into our everyday lives. I do not mean that ordinary people, after seeing photographs of injured civilians, suddenly go out and massacre their neighbours. But I sense an edginess on the streets, with apparently random acts of violence being reported with frightening frequency.

I described in this column the aftermath of the Soho bomb, which I was unfortunate enough to witness. Three days later, I was with a friend at a bus stop when we were attacked in broad daylight. The assailant, a stranger, stopped and spat on my friend's hair and neck. Then he walked six paces, stooped to pick up a half-brick, and threw it at us with some force, then hurried away. The police say it was a freak event, almost unheard of in the area where it happened. The same is true, I imagine, of a much more serious incident a couple of weeks later, when a passenger was pushed under a train as he waited at a station in the suburbs of London.

At the same time, we hear daily about the latest developments in the investigation into the murder of Jill Dando, the TV presenter who was shot on her doorstep in south-west London last month. In the days after the killing, much was made of a so-called "Serb connection", which has mysteriously disappeared from subsequent coverage. But the Dando murder, tragic as it is, highlights another problematic aspect of our response to violent events. In spite of several sightings of people behaving suspiciously, the police appear to be as puzzled as to the motive and identity of the murderer as they were at the beginning. Yet the case has been reported exhaustively, often taking precedence over the Balkan war. It has certainly received much more attention than the continued suffering of those injured in the Soho explosion, some of whom remain in hospital, where they face multiple operations.

"With all this in mind one can construct what would be, from a News of the World reader's point of view, the `perfect' murder," George Orwell wrote half a century ago in his famous essay "Decline of the English Murder". He was deploring the emergence of a new type of crime, involving random violence against strangers rather than the meticulously plotted murder of a husband or wife which was the preferred reading-matter of the British public. He need not have worried. The events of the last month demonstrate that some of us would rather occupy our minds with a juicy, old-fashioned murder mystery than people who have been blown up by bombs, in London or Belgrade.

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