'Where have our three-minute silences been for the dead of Rwanda or Srebrenica or Sierra Leone?'
You can't get away from it; you don't want to get away from it. Since Tuesday lunchtime you've been putting on the television at times you'd never usually watch it, you've been reading newspapers with the kind of intensity that you'd usually reserve for a thriller, you've been talking to people on buses and in shops about what you've heard and they've heard in the latest news bulletins. And yes, of course it's natural to do that when there is a disaster of this magnitude – you feel involved, you feel shaken, you need to talk about it and make sense of it.
But has there been any moment when a sense of unease has crept in? Maybe you found tears filling your eyes the first time you heard some terrible voice mail message left by a woman in a smoking building, or when you read the words of the anguished phone call that a man made as he sat in an aeroplane taken over by maniacs. But then you heard another similar message, and you read another similar message, and you looked into the eyes of a photograph of a child or a young man who are now dead, and you read about the couple who had just got engaged, now sundered forever, or the man who ran from the burning building not knowing that his own sister was on the aeroplane that had crashed into it. And then, did you wonder – are we beginning to play this horror to ourselves like some kind of gut-wrenching movie?
I'm not saying that we are wrong to be shocked, to want to know, to want to hear, to want to grieve. After such devastation it is right that the newspapers, the radio, the television should expend energy trying to describe and make sense of it all. It is understandable that we should weep at so many thousands of lives cut short and find ourselves turning to our own families when we contemplate those people whose daughters and husbands and mothers have been lost to them.
And I have always argued that news is better if we hear the victims' voices, that we can only understand the world if we understand how big events affect little people. So why do I feel this unease at the ever-growing detail and space being expended on uncovering the moment by moment experiences of the victims in this disaster? I can't stop myself looking at those pictures time and again, even though I'm not sure what this repeated viewing adds to my understanding of events. I can't stop myself reading those details, the details of the teenage girl holding up a snap of her dad, saying "I'm looking for my father. He wears a gold cross around his neck and his nickname is the Kid", or the woman who saw the plane coming into the second tower on television as she was speaking to her husband, who was in the tower, on the telephone. "I screamed, 'Robert, there's another plane coming. Get out of the building!', but there was no answer and the line went dead."
Although we may think we are being sensitive by displaying and weeping over strangers' grief, we are not always this sensitive. Would we be so sensitive, for instance, if America was to do over the weekend what it is threatening to do, and start launching attacks on the country that it believes helped the terrorists to train and equip themselves? We wouldn't have access to the last words of the civilians caught up in those attacks, but we might see pictures of their burning houses and the rubble under which they were caught.
These civilians would include utterly innocent people whose lives have already been torn and warped by war. Would we extend our tearful sympathy to their loved ones, seeking them through the days and nights? Would we desperately reconstruct their last hours in smoke-filled cellars or burning buildings? Or would we, as Richard Littlejohn in the Sun yesterday put it, see it as merely "toasting a bunch of barbarians in a tent in Afghanistan"? Look at that phrase again. Toasting. Barbarians. Aren't they human? And don't they bleed too?
And have we been so sensitive in the past? Yesterday, millions of people of people all over Europe observed a three-minute silence for those who died in New York. It is a fine gesture that asks for silence, for simple recognition of sadness, in the face of so much mass slaughter. The media gladly dwelt on the sense of shared experience that brought Europeans to mourn those who died on another continent. But where have been our three-minute silences in recent years for the dead of Rwanda or Srebrenica or Sierra Leone? It's worrying to think that our sense of shared humanity only extends so far, only as far as people who look like us and speak the same language, only as far as attacks where British nationals are killed.
It would be terrible if our grief over this attack began to blind us to everything else in the world. No other story seems to exist any more, as if that burning building had sucked up all the oxygen that fans the news. That may already be putting other lives at risk: when Israel moved tanks into Jericho and killed Palestinians in Jenin earlier this week, did they do it in the knowledge that at this time nobody would be looking, nobody would be criticising?
Perhaps we don't need to ask these questions of ourselves. It would be natural not to, and to go on looking at the images that move us most and listening to the stories that most engage us. To play the world like a movie that suits our already-known scripts, and not to wonder about other scripts that we might be missing.
But what if this movie now begins to cross genres, to encompass not only this huge terrorist attack and thousands of personal tragedies, but also the spectacle of war? It seems telling that the parts of the media that have been the most eager to uncover every tiny, tearful detail of sthe tragedy have also been the most vociferous in calling for all-out war – even before any enemy has even been identified. The rhetoric of grief, seemingly so natural and so sympathetic, somehow seems to be shading all too easily into the rhetoric of revenge.
Maybe that sounds alarmist to you. After all, if you read this broadsheet all week you will have been reading people urging measured and responsible reactions. But in other parts of the media, where the tone is more fevered, tales of tragedy and calls for blood are going hand in hand.
One tabloid newspaper that is lying across my desk as I write this – not some eccentric rag, but a newspaper read by millions of people in Britain – opens on a spread with photographs of mourners and bodybags. There are two stories here. One is full of the gut-wrenching detail to which we have become accustomed, a story of tapping still being heard under the rubble as a woman – God knows how they know it is a woman – tries desperately to communicate with rescuers. The other story is headlined "Go get 'em George" and calls fiercely for cruise-missile strikes, special forces operations and even all-out attack.
In such a climate, those urging caution are being made out to be cold-hearted and inhuman. But it isn't always inhuman to want to stop crying, and start thinking.