These are some fairly disorganised thoughts scribbled in a station and on a train on 24th December last year. I have a bad habit of trying to (in the words of my wife) connect the dots and present a complete and coherent picture of an issue. For reasons that will become clear I don’t want to do that here.
There have almost certainly been homeless people in Rome for as long as the city has existed. Similarly the presence of armed soldiers has probably been a constant. Here in and around Termini Station there is an abundance of both, but ordinary life is going on oblivious. On the main concourse there is a Christmas tree with messages and wishes stuck to it. One piece of paper reads simply: Gulio.
Gulio Regeni, whose name has been seen everywhere in Italy this year, was, after a fashion, a migrant, an Italian PhD student in Egypt. He was by all accounts an exemplary human being, the sort of person who quite simply gives you hope for the future. He was murdered by the security services. They saw him as a potential threat: a European in a repressive Middle-Eastern country asking searching questions and sticking up for people whose livelihoods and rights were threatened, and who had no alternative but to stand up for each other and take whatever outside help they could get.
He could have stayed in Italy and helped migrants here. There are lots of good people involved in such initiatives, people from the church and civil society. The Italian Navy has managed to save huge numbers of people from the Mediterranean, but the response of national and local government authorities has sometimes been a lot less helpful. Recently the police in Rome turfed out the inhabitants of a volunteer centre which was housing, feeding and advising homeless newcomers. Lots of people on the streets come from Senegal, Mauritius and Pakistan. They are, despite their religious background and the colour of their skin, the counterparts of the Italians who went in such huge numbers to the Americas a century ago and who now go to work and study in London and elsewhere. Any one of them could be another Gulio Regeni.
In Rome there is huge pressure on public housing. It started before the recent wave of migration. Nevertheless openly racist groups like Casapound have been exploiting the crisis for their own ends. A family of Moroccan origin, who have been here for several years and are now Italian, were prevented last month from moving into the apartment assigned to them by a group of ‘locals’ shouting “we don’t want blacks here”. I came across other migrants online (white European ones, who classify themselves as ‘expats’) who made excuses for the protests.
Homeless people, whether migrants or otherwise, are usually invisible. Armed soldiers are too, albeit in a different way. I’m used to guns, having seen so many of them in Mexico. When we came back to Europe last December they were already everywhere. It’s not just stations and airports and major tourist sites, but also our local metro station. They are there to identify and exclude anyone who might be a threat.
They are there in Brussels too. No-one talks about it, a friend of ours who lives there tells us. It’s become a taboo. Life must go on.
It’s all too complex and contradictory to assemble into a simple picture or a single narrative. The problems are multifaceted, dynamic and interlinked. What’s the proper reaction to attacks like the ones in Paris, Brussels and Berlin? Any response is inevitably partial and incoherent. For several days this month no big trucks were allowed to circulate in Rome. Last month there was a similar prohibition in place because of the pollution. In the first case no one complained. In the second people felt justified in doing so.
Any attempt to describe the future which doesn’t address Climate Change is meaningless and dishonest. Last Christmas someone gave me a book called ‘Sapiens’, which purports to be a complete history of the human race. The conclusion features one reference to the changing climate, and it dismisses the prospect in two lines. Yesterday in Feltrinelli I saw that the same writer has a new book about the future. This time there are three pages dedicated to the environment, on which he argues in a tone of staggering glibness that human beings will probably survive like they always have, probably just in much smaller number.
That’s all fine then.
Migration is one of the most basic evolutionary reflexes. ‘You only leave home/when home won’t let you stay’.
I take a photo of the scene with the tree and like any photo in any public place in Europe right now it could end up being captioned ‘five minutes before the shooting began’.
It’s easy to identify the main ingredients in this stew of fear and resentment: ‘We’ have to protect ourselves from ‘them’. ‘They’ get everything. ‘We’ get nothing. Far-right tricksters, agents of violence and chaos, keep throwing extra spice into the simmering unpalatable mix. We don’t want to accept what they are offering, but maybe after a certain point there will be nothing else to eat. That’s what they and their counterparts in the Middle East want to happen.
In the meantime lots of people are unhappy in their lives. The obvious thing to do would be to stop spending so much, get out of debt, but our mode of existence is based on over-consumption. That’s why Bush came out immediately after 9/11 and told American citizens to get back in the malls. That’s why the implied missing word in the ‘Keep calm and carry on’ meme’ is ‘…shopping’.
The Internet tells us there is no limit to how much we can consume. It’s an infinite resource. It increasingly determines how we regard that other reality, the one that sustains and troubles us so much. Maybe one of our secret thoughts is: Why can’t all these homeless people and migrants just do what we do and take refuge online?
Here’s a question that doesn’t get asked enough: if states are so keen to protect us from the threat of terrorism, why do they do basically nothing to protect us from climate change? Why don’t they tell us to consume less rather than more?
A neoliberal response to any question is that more markets are the answer. In the words of Thomas Pynchon, the real war is a celebration of markets. Perhaps it’s significant then that so many terrorist attacks target markets; generally local ones, as the global one is beyond reach or reproach.
Deaths from terrorist attacks are visible, immediate and spectacular. Terrorists target people like us because they know it will be newsworthy. Climate change will – probably already does – kill many more people than terrorism will, but more slowly and less visibly. It targets people who are more vulnerable than we believe ourselves to be, who do not have the protections that states founded upon and legitimised by liberal values and institutions provide.
It’s strange, or at least illogical, given the prevalence and persistence of climate change denial, that there is no-one (or at least no-one I’ve come across) who tries to get away with claiming that there’s no connection between a bomb exploding in a marketplace and people being killed and injured.
What’s Christmas like in Russia this year? After the massacre of Aleppo are people still sentimentalising the young, are orthodox priests preaching about the need for peace in the world? Are they mourning the ambassador to Turkey? Will anyone around the Christmas dinner table point out that bombing Aleppo to pieces would have consequences?
What are the consequences of me, a British citizen, asking these questions? One of my compatriots once wrote:
‘Those to whom evil is done/Do evil in their turn’.
There is a tension around the issue of belonging, and the line between those who do and don’t belong is fraught. That’s why we ignore armed soldiers and homeless people in our midst. In the words of the great Zygmunt Bauman (RIP), the greatest fear we have nowadays is of being excluded.
It’s the day before Christmas. There are adverts for luxury goods everywhere we look.