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Homeless Tent fire. Pictured the scene on a lane just off Sandwith Street Upper, in Dublin. Reports suggest that after a protest between homeless groups in support of refugees and those opposed to them, there was a fire reportaly in this lane where a homeless camp had been set up. Photo: Sam Boal/ Rolling News

Opinion The US turned a blind eye as a culture of violence grew - we should not do the same

TASC director Dr Shana Cohen says Irish society shouldn’t become complicit in a culture of violence by remaining silent.

AS A TEXAS native, I am not unfamiliar with guns. When I was growing up, my neighbour would come over with his rifle when we had rats or there was a wild animal in the backyard. My brother’s friends had gun racks in their cars.

The repeated mass and individual shootings in the US, the far more invisible daily accidents – too often involving children, and Republican Party intransigence regarding gun control are having a far more pernicious effect than occasional exposure to a weapon. Guns are now the leading cause of death in children ages 1-18 in the US.

Ireland has thankfully not experienced the gun violence affecting the US and other countries like Serbia, yet we are witnessing increasingly bold acts of intimidation and harassment.

No tolerance of violence

A lesson from the violence in the US is therefore not just to maintain gun control but also not to let violence of any kind, whether with weapons or without, become politicised and thus normalised. Surveys in the US have consistently shown rising acceptance of violence against political opponents since Donald Trump’s election in 2016.

This violence could include attacks on specific communities and against protestors marching for a cause the perpetrator dislikes, against partners who have made a personal choice to leave or have an abortion, and in spaces that should be welcoming and positive, like schools.

The fire set last week at the encampment on Sandwith Street in Dublin of asylum seekers in need of housing was a political statement made through intimidation. Repeated incidents that twist violence into an expression of political beliefs eventually blur the boundary between politics and force.

What is acceptable behaviour in the name of a political argument and what is not? The effort by the Governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, to pardon a man who shot and killed someone (also carrying (legally) a gun) at a 2020 Black Lives Matter protest in Austin shows how much violence has become political fodder.

The message is, ‘It’s ok to kill when it suits our political ideals, even if the perpetrator, in this case, has been found guilty of murder in a court of law’. Alternatively, if someone is killed fighting for their politics, even if their acts are illegal, for instance, Ashley Babbitt – who was shot by a police officer during the January 6 insurrection on Capitol Hill, then their death becomes a crime. Former President Trump has clung to her death as a sign of his followers’ persecution.

Creeping dehumanisation

To avoid the use of violence creeping into mainstream politics, as it has in the US, countries like Ireland need a constructive strategy that flips the normalisation of intimidation, harassment, and injury on its head. Instead of continuously responding to shifting boundaries of acceptable behaviour, national and community NGOs, the government, and other stakeholders should set the boundary and fortify it.

The boundary would maintain politics as dialogue, which precludes the dehumanisation and demonisation that inspires violence.

The fortification would be based on three principles: highlight the benefits of collaboration and solidarity on an everyday level, emphasise the harm politically motivated violence inflicts upon society, and ensure access to mental health services.

Gun violence and political extremism are not caused by mental illness, but there can be a relationship. The American company Moonshot, which monitors extremism online, found that individuals searching for far-right groups were 115% more likely to click on mental health ads.

In Ireland, as of December 2022, 14,000 people, including children, were waiting for an HSE psychology service and almost a third for over a year. Again, though mental health cannot be used to justify issues like deregulating access to guns, making sure that those who need counselling and other services receive them is a necessary step.

Society’s responsibility

The other responses function at a societal level. The political success of violence depends on concentrating public attention on the same issues over and over again, so that these issues become more acceptable talking points, like challenging the rights of refugees and asylum seekers, ethnic minorities, women, and the LGBTQI community.

The counter, therefore, has to show how much respect for individual and communal rights and diversity is necessary for a healthy society. We shouldn’t need foodbanks, but their operation has relied upon organisations as diverse as the Capuchin Day Centre, the Muslim Sisters of Eire, and Crosscare.

Inversely, the pain and anxiety caused by discrimination and intimidation must be regarded as a concern of the wider general public, and not the problem of a specific community.

This means that Government and government agencies must pay greater attention to the worries and fears expressed within communities subject to abuse and often unheard. In fact, the government should guarantee transparent consultation processes linked to adequate provision of resources for all communities resident in Ireland.

A tactic like burning tents or protesting outside private homes that reinforce the vulnerability of one group can easily be used for others so that in the end no one feels entirely comfortable anywhere. That, unfortunately, may be the future of Texas but we certainly don’t want it here.

Dr Shana Cohen is the Director of TASC. TASC is an independent think-tank whose mission is to address inequality and sustain democracy by translating analysis into action.

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