Thursday 9 September 2004

Norm is wrong.

Well, only half wrong, really. The first half of this post, to be precise.

OK, first of all, to understand what we're all talking about, read this.

Why does the sight of wounded and bleeding children hurt so much? Because they summon all sorts of archetypal memories. In their thinness and nakedness, the children look like vulnerability itself.

The small bodies slumped in men's arms, hanging there as loosely folded as a length of heavy cloth, are each of them a Pietà, the archetype of pity. Each is a Cordelia carried on at the end of Act V, the cruellest moment in any play ever written.

Each carried body is a bitter parody of a sleeping child cared for in the arms of its father, in which every line is the same as it should be, but the meaning of every line is the opposite of what you hope it might be.

To be fair to Adam Nicholson, there is some much better writing than that in his piece, particularly when he's describing his own real experiences rather than fiction. But my first response when I read the bit I've quoted above was utter incredulity: he was getting so engrossed in his literary references that he was failing adequately to describe real events. I'm sorry, but if you can't manage to convey how awful Beslan was without saying that it was like that bit in that Shakespeare play you really like, then shut up. This isn't a fucking English A level exam.

Anyway, Mark Steyn had, I think, a similar reaction to me.

And then there was Adam Nicolson in London's Daily Telegraph, who filed one of those ornately anguished columns full of elevated, overwritten allusions — each child was "a Pieta, the archetype of pity. Each is a Cordelia carried on at the end of Act V" — and yet in a thousand words he's too busy honing his limpid imagery to confront the fact that this foul deed had perpetrators, never mind the identity of those perpetrators.

Spot on, as far as I'm concerned, but Norm takes issue with it:

Leaving aside that Nicholson does have a reference in passing to at least some of the perpetrators ('The death and wounding of children - by women terrorists, for goodness sake...'), he writes about what happened in Beslan in terms making it quite clear that he's dealing with a horror inflicted by some human beings upon other human beings ...

'Cruelty', 'wrongness', 'terrible irruption of wickedness' - these words carry upon their face that they are about the actions of human perpetrators, and it is a negligent oversight on Steyn's part to level the criticism he does.

No, it's not, because Steyn never said that Nicholson failed to mention the perpetrators; he said that Nicholson failed to confront them. I don't think mentioning someone in passing is the same as confronting them, I don't think alluding to someone's existence is the same as confronting them, and, given the point Steyn is making, these are relevant distinctions to be drawing: the distinctions between those who wish merely to mope about terrorism and and those of us who wish to destroy it. At no point does any of Nicholson's writing give the impression he's looking for a solution. He goes out of his way, in fact, to make it clear that not only is the world full of evil, but that it's been that way for a very long time:

You only have to read the ancient texts to understand that. Psalm 77, written in the Iron Age, more than 2,500 years ago, stares straight at the dreadfulness of things. It is a lament in the face of unapproachable sorrow. ... There is no consolation in [it]. It simply states the cruelty of things

This is not a man looking to solve problems. He's writing about their eternal existence. He lists other examples — Dunblane, Srebrenica, Vietnam — pounding home the idea that Beslan is another particularly dire example of something that is part of human existence, something that doesn't change, something that will inevitably happen again.

Back to Norm:

As to whether or not Nicholson is in favour of 'do[ing] something about' what happened at Beslan, I have no idea. I would venture to say that unless one has a basis for knowing that he wasn't, the default position ought to be that pretty well anyone writing as he did would be in favour of doing something.

Oh, yes, that certainly ought to be the default position, but, as we've seen again and again over the last three years, it isn't. Grief and suffering seem to be the only things that most decent people can agree on. When it comes to doing anything concrete to prevent these atrocities, far too many people are dead set against any action — that, in fact, is one of the reasons we've ended up living in a world in which terrorism's so popular. Norm has written plenty about this himself. Why can he suddenly not see it?


Norm has kindly posted a response to my response to his response to Steyn's response to Nicholson's response to Beslan. He makes perfectly fair points, of course, but I'm still going to disagree with him.

There are events which are so terrible that they induce in people a sorrow, and a sense of solidarity in mourning, events to which the right immediate response seems to be either silence or solemn lament. Nicholson was writing about just such an event when its ghastly details hadn't even been fully digested.

This is true. But I have a problem with it. Atrocities every bit as shocking and disgusting occurred in the Second World War. Contrary to what many Germans claim, the concentration camps and death camps were known about: my grandmother, in England, certainly knew about them: she promised my father and my aunt that she would slit their throats before she'd let the Gestapo have them. And people regularly woke up in London or Belfast or Birmingham to discover that half their neighbours had been killed during the night's blitz. And the response of my grandparents' generation was, pretty much universally, "Let's destroy the bloody Nazis." That attitude is how they won. Nicholson's attitude is how they could have lost. Nicholson isn't wrong or unreasonable, and his attitude certainly isn't inexcusable: of course we can all understand how he feels. But his attitude, especially insofar as it's shared by a significant chunk of the population, is problematic.

Between us, J and I have already set out more than enough by way of textual exegesis on this single newspaper column.

Ain't that the truth.

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