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Ken Livingstone on Boston - The Search for Understanding

01/05/2013 12:06 BST | Updated 30/06/2013 10:12 BST

Bogeymen on the far left are often attacked and disparaged for what we may reliably describe as sympathising with some pretty objectionable people. Some of these criticisms are legitimate; for instance, George Galloway has long had links with some rather nasty characters, and has a history of saying some rather nasty things. However, there's a big distance between the positions of Galloway and those taken by the former Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, who's been pilloried this week for some comments he made on an Iranian TV channel regarding the Boston Marathon bombings.

What Livingstone suggested was that perceived 'injustices' cause terrorists to 'lash out'. He cited 'torture at Guantanamo Bay, at Bagram airbase' as reasons for anger, especially Islamic anger, against the United States and the west in general. These comments triggered a predictable outpouring of anger against Livingstone, with one Tory MP claiming he should be removed from Labour's National Executive Committee, and describing the remarks as 'reprehensible'. The MP in question, Brooks Newmark, said that Livingstone 'suggests that the actions of the two Boston bombers were justified and excusable'. When I read that particular quote, I sighed, and realised I was going to have to try to dispute this particular bit of rubbish.

Terrorism, by its very nature, arouses strong emotions and strong reactions on all sides. The idea of attacking innocent civilians is anathema to almost everyone in society. The pictures that we saw from Boston, the words we read from reporters at the scene, the testimonies from the victims, they all pool together in a powerful way and act to cloud our usual levels of rationality. Too often in these situations, the analysis that follows focuses on process. We saw pictures of the bombers, of the bombs. We learned of the processes they may have undertaken in building their weapons. We watched the tense manhunt on the streets of suburban Massachusetts. What we saw, and what we discussed, was the 'how' of the incident. What is dismissed, far too readily, is the 'why'. We don't look for reasons, not nearly enough; we don't seek to explain.

Because terror is such an inflammatory issue in modern society, it's so much more convenient for people to try to ignore any kind of motive. The act is so terrible that we don't seek to rationalise it, for fear of bringing it in from the cold. It is more comfortable for us to think of terrorists as deranged, which they often are, and unstable, which they often are. It is as if we need to see the perpetrators of these horrific crimes as the very opposite of what we represent, with no discernible motives other than lunacy, insanity, or hyper-religious fervor. For Westerners in particular, this narrative helps to perpetuate terror as something 'other', distinct from our own, civilised, societies. This is why there was such confusion and discomfort when the 7/7 bombers were discovered to be homegrown. How could this happen under our noses, in our communities?

Livingstone is not condoning or excusing the actions that the Tsarnaev brothers have been accused of. Anyone who reads the comments can see that; furthermore, anyone who knows Livingstone, who saw his powerful speech as Mayor following the attacks on London, will recognise that this is not a terrorist sympathiser. Saying that these bombers were anti-US, that they had grievances against US foreign policy, is not the same as saying that what they did was proper, or right. What his comments represent is something much more positive, something which we have so often been denied in these cases: a desire not just to criticise and to condemn - though of course, these desires would be entirely legitimate - but to understand, in the hope that, in the future, these horrible events are not repeated with the same grim frequency.

When we paint terrorists, mass murderers and violent criminals as lone wolves, when we deny any interrogation of their motives, when we see them merely as terrifying freaks to be gawped at in the dock, we do our societies an enormous disservice. It is so important, for the future of these societies, that we seek, as Livingstone does, to make sense of why these people commit these crimes, and what drives them to do what we see as unexplainable. If we fail in this endeavour, all we will succeed in doing is creating a culture of exclusion, not inclusion, and, by pushing more people onto the sidelines, generating the next wave of grudge-bearing thugs who seek to tear our society apart.