After Woolwich

Like many people, I learned of yesterday’s horror in Woolwich from my Twitterstream. At first, I was puzzled. There were many tweets expressing indignation about the phrase ‘of Muslim appearance’.* Was this another of those endless arguments about politically-correct expressions, and who would use such an odd and meaningless phrase anyway? I decided I wasn’t interested. Then a few tweets began to trickle in using words like ‘butchery’ and ‘machete’ and I realised something dreadful had happened. I followed the links, watched the video and read the news reports. Only then did I learn that a man had been killed. It took still longer for me to learn of the extraordinary bravery of Ingrid Loyau-Kennett and other women who confronted the killers and shielded the body of the dead man before the security forces turned up. (You can read an account here, link opens in new window.) In the meantime, there were the usual calls for vengeance and some pretty nasty comments about Islam, the police and just about anybody who was in any way involved. In short, a Twitter spat which may have alleviated feelings but which did nothing to change the facts: a man had been brutally murdered in broad daylight on a ‘safe’ London street.

I record all this because I think the sequence of events unfolding in my Twitterstream is quite revealing: first the argument over language, which some might think almost an irrelevance in the wake of such horror; then the report of the incident itself and the sickening knowledge that a human being had been butchered to death; next, the reaction, often vengeful and violent; finally, recognition of the courage and humanity of some in the midst of brutality and hatred.

My own immediate reaction was to pray for the dead man and his attackers, which did not go down well in some quarters. Pray for the dead man and his family, yes, but for his attackers, no: let them rot in hell! But isn’t that wrong? We are as connected to the murderers as we are to the murdered, and in more ways than you might suppose. We are all capable of the violence we saw in Woolwich yesterday, and if we think we aren’t, we are kidding ourselves. We are all capable of hating with insane intensity. Fortunately, most of us never act out the violence we carry within ourselves, but we know it is there. Equally, we know that when anyone’s life is ended, we too are diminished. We too are vulnerable, we too are at risk. Prayer makes whatever sense can be made of this conundrum. It is a way of trying to bring love into a situation that is full of hatred and pain. No one wants sermons at such a time. What we need is the reassurance love gives.

Love and forgiveness can free us from the cycle of death and destruction, but not everyone is ready to forgive at the same time. We sometimes need someone else to show us the way. Yesterday, I think the women who went to help in Woolwich gave us all a fine example of how courage and compassion can transform an ugly situation and bring love where there is none. Ingrid Loyau-Kennett was travelling on a ‘bus, stepped down to give First Aid to what she thought was the victim of a road accident, then drew the attackers’ attention to herself so that others might be safe. It was an heroic act, certainly, in marked contrast to the cowardice of the attackers, but I think it was something more. I do not know whether she has any religion or not, but to me her actions speak of purity of heart. Hers was a redemptive act, and we should thank God for it.

*I understand why the phrase is as objectionable as it is meaningless, but it seemed odd to me to be concentrating on that in the immediate aftermath of the killing. Twitter often approaches things sideways on.

Update 24 May 2013

According to an article in today’s Catholic Herald, Ingrid Loyau-Kennett is a Christian and was inspired by her Catholic Faith to do what she did. See here (link opens in new window).