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tribes, Twitter and the monster within

Our new ways of talking are stirring old demons. We can lay them to rest by keeping ears and minds open, and applying the lessons of human rights

On 11th September 2001, I watched the Twin Towers fall while sitting on the deck of a beach house in Cuba. I was travelling with friends and we had just— as chance would have it—visited a little-known US military base called Guantánamo Bay. Watching the atrocity, I felt something unfamiliar surging through me—a kind of jingoism, mixed with anger and rage. This was amplified by the fact that one of the friends with me was desperately trying to find news of his cousin who worked in the World Trade Center. We soon found out that he had lost his life.

In the next few days I watched the news compulsively. I found myself, surprisingly, agreeing with President George W Bush, who I had despised, as he made the case for an invasion of Afghanistan. I had never felt any inkling of support for a foreign war before. If I had reflected I would have had to admit I knew almost nothing about Afghanistan and gave little thought to the human consequences of an invasion. My own country wasn’t even under attack.

Shortly afterwards, I began to feel less warlike, and examined my feelings. I was aware that I had been thinking differently, but it somehow felt authentic. Who was this new person? Would he be attending nationalist rallies and hanging a Union flag in his student flat? I recognised that my head and heart were sending different messages. History teaches us that however rational and principled people might think they are, the perception of threat can distort priorities. As I had watched the Towers fall, I had, at 20, learned a chilling but important lesson. The monster is not always outside us, it is sometimes within us.

It is a lesson upon which the ideals of human rights are founded. From the philosophical writings of Immanuel Kant and John Rawls, through to the more practical words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention, the underlying idea has always been to protect the individual and check the tyranny of majorities, which can suddenly turn oppressive or even genocidal when tribal instincts are triggered.

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In Prospect’s March issue: Gaby Hinsliff explains why all sides of the Brexit debate feel like they’re losing. She says that the Brexit war has raged on for two and half years and disfigured British politics in the process, leaving Remainers in mourning and Leavers crying betrayal. Elsewhere in the issue: James Ball, Martin Moore and Barbara Speed examine how we should be less worried about the tech giants Facebook, Amazon and Google and more worried about the data they hold about us. Ball argues that breaking up these huge companies isn’t the answer; Moore asks what would happens when a tech giant wants to run a smart city, and Speed looks at the increasing trend of tracking everything in our daily lives from the amount of water we drink to how many notifications we receive to our smartphone. Also, Rachel Sylvester profiles Sajid Javid, the Cabinet minister positioning himself for the top job.