A light of hope in the shadow of a gunman;Comment;Opinion

29th March 1996 at 00:00
I once saw the northern lights above Dunblane - shimmering folds of light in the form of curtains. It was a beautiful and almost transcendent sight. I did not recall it until several days after the tragedy. What I did remember vividly, as soon as the murderer Thomas Hamilton's name was released, was a conversation with him on my doorstep in 1983. He wanted to complain about the council's termination of his youth club let and came with many signatures and letters from parents in support of his activities.

Anyone writing on this tragedy is stepping where even angels fear to tread. For those directly involved the pain and trauma are unimaginable. In the wider community there is deep trauma. The mind finds means for helping the self survive such shock: numbness, disbelief. Later, anger, guilt and resentment. There will be some, however, well beyond Dunblane who will suffer such deep distress that they also will need professional and pastoral care.

Everyone I have met has been in some degree of shock but I have been struck by the reflective response of so many. It is as if this tragedy has torn asunder a curtain and we see, albeit through a dark glass, into both ourselves and out to our society, in ways that disconcert and convey moral anxiety. So many have said to me that the issues go wide and deep without being quite able to articulate what they feel. Gun control, school security and registration of youth workers will not on their own assuage this unease.

In saying so we must beware any temptation to incorporate this tragedy into some apocalyptic millennial prophecy of catastrophe. If ever there was a time for the spiritual values of care, love and hope to prevail it is now. There are ways of addressing our unease which believers and non-believers alike can embrace. The first is to affirm, as the people of Dunblane have surely done, the interdependence of the private and the public, the home and the community. There has been too much rhetoric in recent times about private aspirations and too little said in support of what is public, common and shared.

Second, there is a disjunction between the cherishing of children in almost all homes and its public expression in the ways that we care and provide for them, through child care, playgroups, nursery education and the provision of special needs, in which we lag behind Europe. The temporary classrooms and the fabric of our schools are in themselves testimony to this disjunction of values. There can also be no alleviation of our unease when so many children live in poverty and sleep in damp, unhealthy rooms.

Our young people, much denigrated and misunderstood, are victims of another disjunction between private values and their public expression. Uncomfortable as it may be, Hamilton's youth clubs served a need. Serious issues must be addressed about how we care for and nurture older children and teenagers in ways that do not patronise, and which recognise their growing sense of personal autonomy.

It is high time that the efforts of community education in developing advocacy and empowerment of the disadvantaged were matched to commitment of the advantaged to the welfare and personal development of all our young people.

It should not go unremarked, too, that the devaluation of the teaching profession in Scotland in the 1980s led to the loss of many extracurricular activities in our schools. There is a lesson there that seems to have been lost. Then there is the issue of support for parenting. Prattle about family values is no substitute for recognising in our tax and benefit regimes and in employment conditions that the growth that comes from parenting is more important than economic growth in any moral scale of value.

There also needs to be serious appraisal of how we humanise the new technologies of information and mass entertainment. I for one do not want to hear any more silly and dangerous talk about virtual communities on the Internet supplanting real communities on the streets.

Last, we must all ask ourselves why women are not more involved in the planning and management of public services in our communities. There is much that we can learn from the coverage of this tragedy that shows why that is important and what we will all gain. There is something seriously amiss when not one of our unitary authorities has a woman as chief executive and there are precious few who are heads of service.

I did not invite Thomas Hamilton into my home that Saturday. This tragedy has brought issues of what is public and private, of inclusion and exclusion, and above all of how we publicly affirm the value of children and young people uncomfortably close to home.

Iain Macfarlane is a former regional councillor for Bridge of Allan and lectures in social psychology at Stirling University.

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