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Qassem Suleimani. Photo/Getty Images

Suleimani's killing brings anxiety to an already-anxious world

There was enough tension in the air already before a US drone took out Iran’s top soldier, Andrew Anthony writes from London.

We live in anxious times. Not because the world is a more dangerous place – it’s arguably less dangerous than it has ever been – but because people perceive themselves to be under growing threat. Although it may be a global condition, this existential dread is particularly rife in the UK.

It’s said that more than eight million Britons suffer from some kind of anxiety disorder. This year’s games in the third round of the FA Cup – a traditional landmark in the football calendar – were delayed by a minute to raise awareness of mental well-being.

Although it was no doubt a good idea, it’s hard to believe that there is much more awareness to be raised. These days it’s a rare celebrity who hasn’t shared his or her mental-health struggles, depressions, phobias and anxieties.

Even the royal family – once stiffly proud of its stiff upper lip – has entered the confessional spirit of the times. Princes William and Harry have both spoken out about their psychological troubles. And their uncle Andrew, the Duke of York, tried to gain public sympathy with talk of his post-Falklands War stress – though so disastrous was his TV interview last year, in which he attempted to deny accusations of sexual predation, that he is probably more anxious now than he’s ever been.

The nagging background hum is the tension of Brexit, worry about climate change (the Australian bush fires have featured like a preview of the coming apocalypse on TV news), terrorism, growing inequality and an increasingly complex, algorithm-driven world. Why these developments should prove more stressful than past challenges such as, for example, two world wars and the threat of nuclear extinction is something of a mystery.

Whatever the reason, there is a strong sense of impending catastrophe doing the rounds over here. Things came to a head three days into the new decade when it was announced that Iranian general Qassem Suleimani had been killed in an attack by a US drone. Within hours, the phrases “Franz Ferdinand” and “World War III” were trending on Twitter. Never let it be said that the British “keep calm and carry on”, to quote the old Blitz mantra, when there’s an opportunity to freak out.

Had they been asked the day before he was killed who Suleimani was, most Brits would have shaken their heads in bafflement. But the moment the mastermind behind Iran’s proxy militias in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq met his maker, everyone was suddenly a nervous expert on Middle Eastern geopolitics.

The outgoing Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, wrote an impassioned letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson demanding that he voice his objection to the “assassination” of Suleimani. As Corbyn used to be a regular on Iran’s propaganda channel, Press TV, and is on record as referring to one of Suleimani’s proxies – Hizbollah – as his “friends”, it was no surprise that he spoke up, though some wished he’d used his influence with the Iranian regime to protest the mass slaughter in Syria that Suleimani presided over.

It goes without saying that none of us can predict the future. But you don’t have to channel Nostradamus to suggest that, in the short term, Suleimani’s death is likely to raise tensions in an already very tense part of the world. That said, he was no Franz Ferdinand, and the plight of the early 20th-century Austro-Hungarian Empire has little in common with Iran’s current predicament.

None of that, alas, will stop the anxiety from spreading. On the plus side, it’s not just arms dealers who will make a killing. Mindfulness gurus, yoga teachers and CBD salespeople should also be preparing for a roaring trade.

This column was first published in the January 18, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.