Dunblane: what do we tell our children?

22nd March 1996 at 00:00
"The only sustaining forces are recognition of loss, and love and its memories." Victoria Neumark remembers last week's tragedy.

This is what happens. You are sitting in your living-room and one day a shell comes in through the window and you have no living-room, no home, no family in the world any more. It is Beirut. You are working in the garden and one day your next-door neighbour shoots your husband and tells you to leave with the children before he shoots you. It is Sarajevo.

You are planting maize and one day soldiers break through the bush, rape you, torch the field and move on. When you go back to the village, there is no one left alive. It is Mozambique, it is Liberia, it is Rwanda. One day you go to market but on the way your child moves off the path and her feet are blown off. It is Cambodia, it is Afghanistan, it is Bosnia.

You organise an evening class. People are slow to come but they do, all ages, you are building something good and all is going well until one evening the soldiers come. No more evening class, no more community. It is Guatemala, Bolivia, El Salvador.

One day, just like any other, when you were not expecting anything else to happen, you send your child off to school with a clean hanky, their hair not quite brushed because there wasn't time, their reading book in a folder, a big hug and a kiss, and "Be good for the teacher" and a man comes with four guns and you never see the child alive again. It is Dunblane.

What do we tell our children? That the world is safe, really, that only the odd "nasty man" is going to come along and mow some of them - a completely random number - down now and then?

Or that all the ceremonies of innocence by which we set such store, the birthday parties, the new shoes, the haircuts, visits by Father Christmas and the Easter Bunny are indecent deceptions concealing the grinning mask of death?

Or do we dust off some old formulae, invoke God's will or fate, "the wrong place at the wrong time" or perhaps that ghastly platititude: "There's no such thing as bad luck; you make your own luck."

As one tough and witty Scots friend of mine said: "Those who say there's no such thing as luck have always been lucky."

We live in such a lucky society that we do not even know it. We can quarrel in the morning over which cereal to eat, not over who is to eat. We can choose at which school our children are to learn, not whether they are to go to school at all. We can choose whether or not to protect our children against infectious diseases instead of letting them die. And we can send them off to school in the morning and expect to see them at the end of the day, safe and sound.

Except, of course, we can't. Love is no insurance. Health is no insurance. Money, despite all its current dominion, is no insurance. Insurance, even, is no insurance. Closed-circuit television, as the Bulger case poignantly demonstrated, cannot prevent, even if it can assist retribution.

Armed guards, for which vengeful public opinion has not been slow to call, will add to an atmosphere of terror without necessarily adding to security: what if one of the guards goes over the top? In one sense, you cannot make schools, or life, safe.

Yet, as the comparisons with which we began show, there are ways to make life safer. It shocks to compare Dunblane with Sarajevo, Liberia, Beirut.

These are places where civil society broke down and where loosening of external constraints released forces of destruction within people too. It may not be an accident that Thomas Hamilton chose a school in which to revenge himself; schools are a prime site for the reproduction of social values. The family, that other prime site, is, after all, the place for the great majority of all murders. People cannot grow in isolation.

Teachers, as well as rolling back frontiers of ignorance, hold the line against forces of destruction too - ask anyone on playground duty.

The better that work is done, the more individuals are helped to frame their lives within acceptable limits. The more society values education, peaceful resolution of conflict, creative co-operation, the less likely it is that one day someone takes up a gun and takes out his neighbour. Is that the answer? Pay teachers more, create jobs, ban guns, lock the doors?

Are there answers?

While society at large ponders policies, individuals can only suffer. In that suffering, the only sustaining forces are recognition of loss, and love and its memories. A little girl smiling at the door, a young boy waving his hand. Weep, fellow-beings, we owe them our tears. "The flowers of the forest are a' wede awa'."

Victoria Neumark has three children. She is a parent helper in an infant class.

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