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Near Misses

February 13, 2013

Someone was shot and killed in Dartford last night. Enough details are starting to emerge to establish that this wasn’t a random encounter. Kent Police have been quick to publicise this, making people feel safer.

I heard about it on twitter, quite soon after the victim was found. I watched the ripples spread out and was reminded of the reaction to a stabbing in Bexleyheath a year or two ago. On that occasion the attacker was suffering from acute mental health problems, and the weapon was snatched from the knife display in a local shop.

That attack was random, but explained by an individual’s circumstances, and last night’s shooting was reportedly personal, but using a pre-procured weapon.

But in both cases there were similar reactions, via twitter, which revealed anxiety about the places where they happened. I see 3 types…

1. The Curse of Place
2. The World going Downhill
3. The Near Miss

The Curse of Place. This is where the place is almost held responsible for the event. e.g. What do you expect in Dartford? Or in a place like Dartford. The tweeter often expects widespread agreement… everybody knows this is a bad place. Maybe they do live there, and don’t like it, but often they don’t know it, or have had a limited negative experience. The Curse of Place reaction means it immediately becomes a place where “these things happen” – even if it turns out that they very rarely do.

The World going Downhill – looks beyond the place to “this country” or “the world today”. The event becomes evidence that things are getting worse everywhere. Sometimes it comes from a flip of the Curse of Place. For example, reactions to the Bexleyheath stabbing were divided at the time between those who saw it as typical and those who felt it was a change… i.e. for the latter,  “if these things can even happen in Bexleyheath, then what is the world coming to?”. Maybe I should call it ‘The Curse of These Days’.

To be clear, I’m not mocking people who react this way. Tweets, are the immediate and felt reactions of people. I felt obliged to answer back – to say this wasn’t ‘typical Dartford’ based on my 20 years of experience – but it doesn’t mean I think people are stupid. Reactions to these events tap into deep instincts and emotions. There must be a climate of anxiety, about place and about the world in general, amongst the people who tweet this way. Even those who react by putting down Dartford/Bexleyheath may be trying to make themselves feel safer by the comparison with their own place. A lot of those manifesting the Curse of Place, and the World going Downhill, last night were young people, perhaps experiencing something like this so close to home for the first time. Some seemed genuinely and immediately scared and felt more at risk than before.

This brings me to The Near Miss. A lot of people were reacting and posting because “That’s near where I live”, “That’s where I used to live” , “I’m so glad I moved away”, or “I was there an hour before”. This all seems to be about some sense that , “It could have been me”. I think this is because something only becomes real, and actually touches us, when it is close enough to associate with our own immediate experience… like knowing the actual stretch of road, or having passed through the same space. I think this is true even once you reflect on the true odds of your having been at risk.

The Near Miss is significant for all sorts of things. We see stories of gun and knife crime that happen to ‘other people’, far enough away for it to be abstract or to be some impersonal soap drama – however compelling. We relate to the threat of gun and knife crime through numbers – the trends going up or down according to who works the stats. That’s how we merge it into our general sense of this country, or the world, getting better or worse. But when it’s a Near Miss, the event becomes real for us – and we react emotionally and with much stronger first person fear, sorrow or just shock. To quote one literary figure [anonymous under the circumstances], “Accidents only ever happen when you are having them.”

There’s a positive in this for me. It reminds me that people relate differently to things that feel ‘real’ and that very often ‘real’ means local. Local, is whatever makes something feel like a Near Miss even if it didn’t affect you directly.

That’s why politics which people find impossible to relate to – because they are acted out as distant dramas about trends and other people – become real and important only when they are about a Near Miss. That means they are ‘local’. If we want to kindle more popular engagement in politics, then we need to find more ways of making politics local, and more ways of finding the experiences that people care about because they feel like Near Misses. That’s not about playing on fear, it sometimes means dispelling the fear by being able to tell the real story.

BUT

I don’t want to fall into a trap that I chide others for – where an event becomes just a token to generalise, argue, or cry woe about. So, still the most important thing to remember is that somebody died last night. It means that somebody has probably lost a son, a brother, a Dad, or a best mate. Eventually we may learn exactly why and how. But every story is unique. It’s real for those who are in it, in ways that the rest of us cannot know – whether we are 2 miles or 2,000 miles away. Every story is unique because every person is unique. Every untimely death is a waste.

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