Driving around Belfast, the city of my birth and upbringing today, it’s obvious that the police are responding to an increased threat – they’re wearing flak jackets for the first time in years, and you can tell from the looks on other people’s faces that we’re all fearful of the same thing: that someone will, yet again, try to kill another human being because of the uniform they’re wearing.
We all, of course, hope and pray that the shootings of the last month are an aberration, and that the public outcry will reduce the potential for their recurrence, but it’s impossible to be sure of what it would take to prevent further violence in northern Ireland. The people arrested in connection with last month’s killings range from 17 years old to middle age. As far as they are concerned, their political cause legitimises the use of violence to achieve what they perceive to be justice. Confronting them with the human costs might make a contribution. So when the Belfast Telegraph, northern Ireland’s most widely read newspaper, publishes a front page story like this, where generosity and grace are headlined as a lack of forgiveness, I have to ask if we have either simply learned nothing from the past, or if we don’t want to.
‘I can’t forgive my husband’s killers’, says Kate Carroll, whose husband Stephen was murdered less than six weeks ago. But is it our business to know this, or even to ask the question? How did the paper get her to say that? Someone clearly had to go to her house, and ask her ‘can you forgive?’ We have been particularly bad at humanising each other in my home society. I think that the story about Mrs Carroll represents a crude exploitation of a shocked and grieving woman.
Later in the same issue of the paper, Mrs Carroll is quoted as saying:
“Please search your hearts and minds and walk a mile in the shoes of the people you have left behind to mourn the loss of their loved ones. Believe me it’s not an easy thing to do; you will only ever understand that heartbreaking pain when it comes knocking on your door…
Please, please, search your heart and conscience and stop this nonsensical behaviour, forget the deep hatred you possess, live your young lives without the profound bitterness you carry in your hearts and just remember your life on this earth is not a rehearsal; you only ever get one chance at it, so my advice to you is to use it wisely.
You’ll be old before you know it, living with untold regrets, so please, please reconsider what you are doing, the harm and carnage you are leaving behind.
Let the next generations of younger people live in a peaceful country, a country loved by other nations because the people are, and I quote, “so warm and friendly”. Why then can’t we apply that warmth to each other?”
I’m not quite sure how the ‘I can’t forgive’ part of the story managed to become the headline, when in fact Mrs Carroll’s words appear to be so full of grace and generosity. It angers me that the easy option of tabloid rage-stirring was used as the default option for highlighting the story, rather than finding a way to express the incredibly complex and painful journey that this woman must be living through. Mrs Carroll needs to be allowed to go through her shock and grief without interference from the media. The rest of us have a responsibility to re-humanise the world. Let’s begin with facing one part of our reality that we usually prefer to ignore: The continuum of dehumanisation that ends with the taking of human life begins in the ideas and behaviour of individuals who would never consider actually using violence against another person. So the restless hope that not one more human life will be taken in the cause of Irish politics needs to go further than merely denouncing people who use violence; it needs to do better than doorstep recently widowed people, who are only beginning to come to terms with the shock of their loss; it needs to take the risk of looking inward, and asking what every one of us needs to do to stop dehumanising others. This may not be enough on its own to prevent further physical violence, but it’s the right thing to do.