Fintan O’Toole: Killing is easy, living decently in the face of it is hard
Manchester attack shows if you want to force horror into people’s minds, it is better to attack children
Mass murder is easy and the more outrageous it is the easier it gets. Flesh is soft and easily shredded. Lives are fragile and easily shattered. Decency, humanity, compassion are flimsy and precarious. The barriers that separate earth from hell and civilisation from barbarism are porous and full of holes.
It is part of the way we live now to know that these barriers can be crossed at any instant, that we can go from ordinary happiness to endless horror in a flash.
And to know that other human beings can go with remarkable ease from being sons, brothers, workmates, friendly neighbours to being the implacably cruel creatures who will push us into the abyss and exult in the depth of the suffering they have wrought.
We keep that knowledge at bay because we must. Just to live, to get on with things, to preserve the ordinary bonds of trust and decency that hold societies together, we have to relegate it to the margins of our consciousness. But it will not stay there. The point of an atrocity like that in Manchester is precisely to bring it to the front of our minds, and to lodge it there so firmly that trust and decency are crowded out and society breaks apart.
Warped view point
There is not much point in calling these terrorists cowards. From the warped point of view of the terrorist, courage consists precisely in being willing to do the worst. If you want to force horror and hatred into people’s minds, it is much better to attack children than to take on soldiers, much braver to venture across all moral boundaries than to stay within any codes of honour. Taboos, for the terrorist, exist in order to be broken. The unacceptable is the most desirable, the unthinkable the most inspiring, the unspeakable the most eloquent form of articulation.
We in Ireland know this demented logic all too well. We know that the people who commit heinous acts, who put bombs at concerts or in pubs or at memorial services, are not – alas – monsters. They are just true believers. They believe that there is a future place, a state of political grace, in which everyone will be happy and justice will reign. And they know that others, the soft, impure ones, are preventing the arrival of this state of grace because they cannot see the truth.
They are not enlightened. They are fools who think that the present – the imperfect present with its compromises and complacencies and ordinary pleasures – is tolerable. And this makes the unenlightened contemptible.
It is but a small step from contempt to killing, from thinking others beneath you because they lack your zeal to thinking that they deserve to be sacrificed for the cause.
The almost unbearable truth is that so long as there are people among us who are sufficiently convinced that this way of thinking is not just acceptable but righteous and superior, atrocities will be part of our reality. We need our states to be vigilant and smart and efficient. We need policing and intelligence services that understand the communities and cultures in which the deathly mentality arises.
We need political and religious discourse that, while conceding nothing to this viciousness, refuses to demonise or alienate those communities. We need governments that are not goaded by atrocity into abandoning democracy, human rights and the values of an open society. But we also know that even if we have all these things, the killing is easy. It can be done anywhere, with any weapon, against any human target - the softer the better.
And what can we do with this knowledge? All we can do is to live with a paradox – we must remember it and forget it. We must mourn the dead, “name their several names”, feel as much as we can bear of what their loved ones are feeling. We must do this because it is what keeps civilisation alive.
It is what keeps us from barbarism – this mourning, this infinite sorrow, this grief that every one of these lives was unique and miraculous and is gone. The bells that toll for them toll for all of us – and if we cease to hear them, if we are so hardened and inured that the dead become just numbers, we are lost.
But we also have to retain a capacity to forget. We cannot allow our minds to be inhabited, as the killers wish them to be, by the nihilism of horror and despair. We cannot let the wave of revulsion and anger drown out the ordinary things of life.
There is always a question of shame – how can we go on laughing and eating and loving and dancing and listening to silly songs when there is such dread around us and such evil among us? But we can’t afford to be ashamed of the ordinary because that is precisely what the killers want of us. They have no shame but they want us to be ashamed of our daily decadence and our trivial, mundane lives.
Their courage lies in shattering the boundaries of the ordinary, breaking through those limits of common humanity and humdrum affability that hold our societies together. Our courage lies in shoring up those same boundaries and living our lives within them. Ours is greater than theirs – killing is easy, living decently in the face of it is hard.