Mandalay

Mandalay has hit the headlines twice this week and not for the right reasons.

British Foreign Secretary, visiting a Buddhist Temple in Mandalay, Myanmar, was caught on microphone quoting lines from the poem, 'Mandalay by Rudyard Kipling. What was also captured was the rebuke delivered by the British Ambassador. The UK's chief diplomat risks being overheard by his hosts reciting lines that hanker after a lost colonial past.

The 'Mandalay Bay' Resort in Las Vegas will become synonymously with violent massacre as another chapter in America's gruesome history of gun violence unfolds before our eyes. The death toll and scale of the tragedy make it hard to comprehend and the idea that it is not an act of terror is perpexing when it has killed and injured more people than any terrorist act on UK soil.

In very different ways, this brutality and crassness both point to a failure to deal with the past - frontier-thinking and slavery in the case of the Las Vegas massacre and colonial thinking and practice for Boris. The nostalgic reminiscience of a past where who populations were colonised, enslaved, transported or annihilated. Yet the stories of the Wild West still captivate the white American imagination. And British government ministers, egged on by braying supporters in the media or at party conference, call for the re-writing of the history books to be more sympathetic to the British Empire.

What we have still failed to properly acknowledge is that our position in the world (and therefore our sense of identity) was built on systematic dehumanization. We constructed stories about the 'savage' Other and our need to guard ourselves, and Civilisation itself, from their animalistic ways. We sought to mark out our boundaries and protect them, come what may. And we made ourselves the heroes of our own stories with tales of daring do, bravery in the face of impossible odds, civility among the natives.

Whatever drove this gunman personally to kill so many strangers, he also embibed a narrative that told him not to trust his fellow citizen. It is a frightening statistic that there are 265 million weapons in the US currently - or nearly one for every person! But it is not surprising when part of the national myth is a need to be constantly vigilant and on guard against possible attack. As the level of anxiety rises, so does the number of available firearms.

What is the alternative to this frightening arms race? It is trust built on taking risks and being vulnerable. It begins with knowing and trusting our neighbours, our colleagues and those with whom we share the public space. It is about ending the political culture of 'whatever you say, say nothing', where politicians fear being caught out on the record and having to their words weaponised and used against them. This kind of scrutiny was intended to keep our leaders honest, instead it has made them vacuous. It should not be news that leaders have changed their minds when it is plain that the facts on the ground have also changed.

And yes, it is also about acknowledging our history, warts and all. For the savagery of today is the fruit of the brutality of the past. History is about facing what really happened and using that knowledge to shape a better present and future. It teaches us that our national myths continue to be shaped by us as well as shaping us in subtle ways. We will never be safe whilst we humiliate and dehumanize others. It is in the struggle to build a more open, fairer, more equal world that our security really lies.

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