In truth, things of great magnitude have occurred and I will blog about them at some stage, no doubt - but for now I am occupied with more recent happenings.
You see, four days ago I joined Twitter.
It's not like I wasn't aware Twitter existed. At least four different friends/colleagues had recommended I join or demanded to know why I didn't. I had looked once or twice; considered it a couple of times. In the end, the reasons I didn't and the reasons I then did aren't important here - what's important is that I joined and began selecting who to follow, and among them I added one Caroline Criado-Perez, primarily because I had heard of her on the radio that morning. I liked that she had instigated the campaign to get Jane Austen's image onto a UK banknote and thought she'd be an interesting follow.
Reader, I had no idea.
If you missed the general gist, you can catch up here, but it mostly went:
- Woman campaigns for renowned and well-loved author to appear on banknote
- Woman utilises Twitter to launch and expand campaign
- Campaign successful!
- THREATS OF RAPE AND DEATH
Now plenty of commentators better placed and informed than I have written extensively about this and the surrounding issues regarding trolling and so forth, but it did remind me of something I hadn't thought of in a long time.
Back when I was about twenty, I often spent my holidays from university working in a Belfast branch of a well-known high street bookshop. It was largely good, as shop work goes; my colleagues were well-read and fun, and I happily spent my wages like a twenty year old does, on leather jackets, cigarettes and beer. Thus did I breeze happily around the shop floor recommending Donna Tartt to everyone when one day the phone went and I answered it, as my job description dictated I should from time to time.
"[Formally approved standard shop phone greeting and offer of help!]" I chirped eagerly - I can't remember the exact words we used for the phone.
The man on the other end had no such greetings. He launched straight into his message, which was delivered clearly and carefully and was this: "As of today, we will be targeting all Catholics who work in [name of shop]. This is the Red Hand Defenders." He then hung up.
It took the wind out of my sails a little, I'll admit. I think I was still smiling when I hung up and told my older and more experienced co-worker, who looked horrified and called for the manager. People kept asking was I okay. A few people (mainly catholics, actually) made silly jokes about it. I honestly felt like it shouldn't have been a big deal and when the police were called I was equal parts embarrassed and gleeful at the thought of missing some work time. And yet after all this, and while I am no delicate little flower in general... I felt a little shaky. A smidge weird. A tad removed from the world, as though I was functioning normally but behind a layer of clingfilm. Without consultation, the manager told me she was phoning someone to come and get me. I didn't protest.
The police interview was standard - what did he say, were those the exact words, was there any identifying blah blah and so on - but I'll never forget something that was said to me during it, because it was so simple and made so much sense and yet I had never ever thought of it. In response to my vague expression that he hadn't said much/I wasn't upset/this wasn't really a big deal, the policeman shook his head.
"Well, they're terrorists," he said. "They're out to cause terror and that's what they do. There doesn't have to be an act of violence - the threat is enough." So simple, and yet I, growing up in a country famous worldwide for its particularly hardy brand of homegrown terrorism, had never thought of it before.
I certainly thought of it today, and yesterday, and the day before while reading some of the threats coming through to Caroline Criado-Perez, Stella Creasy and others - all women who had taken a stand against what they saw as sexism, misogyny and hate speech. Others can debate the rights and wrongs of freedom of speech, censorship and whether a button on Twitter will do the job - and have been doing so in minute detail. What struck me was the idea that when you post a threat to rape and kill someone, stating a specific time and place (for example 8pm at your house, as one poster "helpfully" detailed), you are intending to cause terror. The person on the receiving end, no matter how hardy, no matter how sensible, no matter how convinced you don't really know their address, will feel that flutter that I, a non-catholic good-in-a-crisis sensible former shop-worker, felt. Their mind's eye will forget the utter ridiculousness of a sectarian organisation thinking that shooting shop assistants will help their political cause, or the utter ridiculousness that someone would kill them for putting Jane Austen on a banknote, and will instead picture the threat, however briefly. They will feel the fear. They will be a victim of terrorists.
I cannot fathom what kind of person imagines it is good, worthwhile or fun to threaten strangers online, any more than I can fathom one who sees the sense in strapping a bomb to one's own body and detonating it in a crowded marketplace in the name of a sincerely held belief. What I do understand is that in one way at least they are two of a kind - causers of terror, infringing on the rights of others. Your right to free speech does not supersede your responsibility to avoid harming other human beings intentionally, whether you harm them through direct actions or by the causing of terror. Perhaps the men who do not cringe at the idea of being thought women-haters might feel differently at the prospect of being called terrorists... though sadly the force of their bile - even after two real-life, not-on-the-internet, actual arrests (to date) - does make me wonder.
And how do we deal with terrorists? I suppose that's a question over which to agonise. But I've seen enough movies to know that we do not negotiate with terrorists. We do not succumb to their demands. We don't "ignore them" and "hope they'll go away". It is the duty of society to show them that their behaviour is unacceptable and wrong and that their terror does not have the desired effect of letting them win. We don't let terrorists win.