JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 25.8.07
MAN WAS MADE TO MOURN, said Robert Burns; but the truth is that in the 21st century, we don’t do it well. Faced with the tragedy of untimely death – not least the terrible shooting in Liverpool on Wednesday of 11-year-old Rhys Jones – we rage, blame, protest, launch campaigns, demand fresh legislation; sometimes, when all else fails, we even formulate grand conspiracy theories. But what we do not do is to allow a simple decline into grief; a long period of tears and withdrawal marked by the wearing of dark clothes, and a reduced level of public and professional activity. And by and large, this is a positive development. No longer browbeaten by the kind of religion that once demanded a passive acceptance of our lot, we rage against the dying of the light in fine style; and our anger at the pain of needless death has helped to fuel a whole range of massive medical advances and social reforms.
The paradox is, though, that as we become better at outwitting and avoiding untimely death, we become steadily worse at handling it when it does happen. Robbed of the old, fatalistic repertoire of sayings and cliches – it was God’s will, what cannot be cured must be endured – we thrash around for ways of expressing the emotions aroused by terrible events like Rhys Jones’s death; and all too often we move instantly from grief to rage, particularly in the case of deaths caused by criminal violence. Anger against the killer who carried out the crime is, of course, a reasonable reaction; but in our rush to deflect the grief, we seem incapable of stopping there. Within hours of Rhys’s death, anger was being expressed against everyone from Gordon Brown and his Home Secretary, to assorted liberal-minded chief police officers, and the entire British judiciary. And if some of those people have genuinely failed in their duty to protect the public, even that expression of anger is not enough for some of Britain’s more sensational media. Instead, they go on to turn their rage against 21st century Britain itself, a nation which has allegedly undergone a terrifying transformation from the harmles Ealing Comedy country that emerged from the Second World War, into what one red-top paper calls “Violent Britain”, a bleak urban desert plaged by gangs of heavily-armed “feral” youths, in which no citizen can walk in safety.
And it’s at this point, of course, that the debate loses all contact with reality, and instead becomes part of that strange rhetoric of decline and despair – we used to be a great and beautiful nation, now we’re a mess – that is such a marked part of Britain’s post-war conversation with itself. In point of fact, deaths caused by gun crime peaked, in England and Wales, in 2001, when almost 100 people died; last year, the figure was 58. In 1995, there were 44 violent killings of young people aged between 5 and 16; last year, the figure was only 20. There is some troubling evidence that the victims of gun crime are becoming younger; the eight young people shot dead in Britain this year are clearly eight too many. But there is, as yet, no huge and advancing wave of death by gun crime affecting young people in this country; and we do ourselves no favours if we persist in acting and reacting as if there was.
So what should we do, in response to such a horrific event as Rhys Jones’s murder? First of all, we should be adult enough to do nothing for a while; to support the police in tracking down the killer, and to let the law take its course. Politicians, of course, can never resist the temptation to generalise wildly and misleadingly – about our society, about the law, about necessary future measures – on the basis of these extremely rare and untypical incidents; David Cameron takes the cake, this week, for producing an entire speech full of half-baked policy ideas and recommendations within 36 hours of Rhys Jones’s death. But if politicians cannot resist trying to make political capital out of this kind of incident, then we should start acquiring the wisdom to ignore them when they do so.
Secondly, we need to think hard about the failure of our society to socialise a significant minority of its young men, who risk becoming drawn into a counter-culture that measures human worth purely in terms of violence inflicted, and goods acquired and displayed. To grow up well, young men – even more than young women – need a sense of belonging to a society that places some value on their strength and abilities, and has a useful, respected, and economically viable role waiting for them, provided they live broadly within the rules. Our society needs wholeheartedly to resume responsibility for providing that, particularly for youngsters whose own families have failed them; or to learn to live with the consequences.
And then finally, we need to face the truth that whatever action is eventually taken as a consequence of Rhys Jones’s murder, nothing will ever bring that lovely, happy boy back to his parents, or help to diminish the pain of their loss. We shouldn’t lose our sense of outrage at what has happened to them, of course. But this weekend, it’s our quiet prayers and thoughts that should be with the Joneses, and with all bereaved parents, everywhere. And if we can bring ourselves to give grief its time and place, in the aftermath of such tragedy, then we may be better able, come next week or next year, to respond in ways that make sense; rather than reacting in knee-jerk haste, and living to repent at leisure.
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