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Coping with 7/11 aftermath

By Rowan Emslie

On the night of the attack, it seemed, everyone was in shock. Talking to a young couple who had been watching the World Cup Final at The Lions Den  a bar immediately opposite Ethiopian Village Restaurant, the site of the first blast  their faces told the story much more fully than their words: wide-eyed, blank and static. When they spoke it was slow and confused, they would lose their way in a sentence and let it tail off into silence.

As Kampala slowly moves back towards normalcy, the mood around the city is changing. People are starting to express anger, at either Al Shabaab or the police for not having done enough in preparation, as well as fear. The need to find someone to blame is natural.

In a report by international relations expert John Mueller, he noted that, reactions to terrorism have also often led to massive and hugely unjustified persecution, some of it of considerable historic consequence. The Russian re-engagement with Chechnya in 1999 or Israels crackdowns against Palestine are instant examples.

President Musevenis pledge to send an additional 20,000 troops to the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia seems to be a combination of reactionary anger and a show of strength following the comments of Sheik Muktar Abu Zubayr, an al-Shabaab leader, who said that the bombings were revenge for Uganda’s deployment of peacekeepers in Mogadishu and were only the beginning.

Mueller is a renowned sceptic of how important terrorists actually are; he has often argued that the relatively low death tolls can in no way justify the massive loss of life seen in a retaliatory war: Is the reaction to terrorism much more dangerous than the act itself?

Although those adept at hyperbole like to proclaim that we live in the age of terror, Mueller writes in Reactions and Overreactions to Terrorism, the number of people worldwide who die as a result of international terrorism is generally only a few hundred a year, tiny compared to the numbers who die in most civil wars or from automobile accidents.

Two American researchers, Jennifer Merolla and Elizabeth Zechmeister, spent five years researching the reactions of the general public to terrorist threats to see how people change their opinions. They found that one of the reactions was for much greater levels of mistrust as evidenced by the extremely high amount of false bomb alarms that have spread over the last week or so. Another reaction was that people were much more concerned with national/public safety as well as being much more likely to support activities that might protect the homeland, even at the expense of civil liberties.

Reports of xenophobic violence since the bombings have been disturbing, especially considering Uganda has a reputation for being an accessible and safe country. What is perhaps more worrying is the lack of furore after the Ugandan Parliament approved the controversial Phone Tapping Bill last week a bill that has been fought for years but, after the bombings, the public state of fear allowed such a bill to be passed.

Karin Bridger, a videographer and cultural anthropologist working in Uganda, said that she noticed that some people have embraced a keep calm and carry on attitude, while others have become much more crippled by concern. What was really interesting, she said, was the way that these two groups were interacting. Those who went to work on Monday morning relatively unconcerned caused consternation with people who were more scared. A lawyer (who asked not to be named) said,

I got into work on Monday morning [after the attack]… People were joking and talking, discussing the World Cup final! I couldnt believe it, I felt like hitting someone.

Compare this with the statement of Alan, a boda boda driver:

It is what it is. Life goes on. Dont worry too much

Of those people who were less openly affected by the attacks Ive been told stories of an outpouring of anger and fear brought on by relatively minor things, maybe two or three days later. A doctor who was called out to Mulago on the night of the blasts, working in frantic conditions at very short notice, told me it was only two days later that he felt a reaction to the events, brought on by an incredibly tiny problem. As he was making dinner his can opener malfunctioned half way around a tin of tomatoes. All of a sudden he was overcome by a compulsion to hurl the can as hard as he possibly could to the floor which, of course, splattered the tomatoes everywhere. This tiny amount of inconsequential frustration had given him an avenue to vent.

People react to tumultuous events in different ways. While we should all remember to remain vigilant for potential security threats we should also remember to be tolerant of those differences and ensure that we each show as much support for those around us as possible.

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