Sunday, June 29, 2003

It would be easy, particularly after September 11, to feel desperate about the world and to have doubts about the capacity of human beings to live together.

This article first appeared in the California-based 'Union Jack', April 2002

It would be easy, particularly after September 11, to feel desperate about the world and to have doubts about the capacity of human beings to live together. New outrages in the
Middle East seem to be almost commonplace, India and Pakistan rattle their nuclear sabres, Cambodians and Rwandan inherit a genocidal legacy, millions of Afghanis face starvation, while those of us in Britain sometimes despair of ever ending the violence in Northern Ireland. A young American boy said to me once, before the Twin Towers fell, ‘Overseas is weird.’ But we are all overseas now. A disaster in one distant place is almost instantaneously replayed everywhere else.

There is no place on the globe, however, where there are not also seeds of hope beginning to sprout. They too deserve replaying. Ground Zero itself has become synonymous with courage and fresh thinking and the recognition that we are all in the same terror-buffeted global boat. It has also contributed to a growth of faith and religious observance. Britain’s Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, writes in his new book Celebrating Life about the way our prevalent culture has a way of ruthlessly screening out matters related to faith and says, ‘We need a diet high in ideals as well as fibre.’ And every now and then the media, rather than screening out stories of healing, have held up high ideals before us.

For us in Britain, Northern Ireland is a constant reminder that should encourage humility when assessing the shortcomings of others. In recent weeks the scale of violence has grown and a showing of the film ‘Bloody Sunday’ has raised the temperature. But even here there are exciting efforts by men and women to put the past behind them.

Through research for my book Forgiveness: Breaking the Chain of Hate I was brought in touch with the Northern English town of Warrington. In 1993 a bomb set by the Provisional IRA killed two small boys and wounded 56 other people. There was a spontaneous outpouring of sympathy and support from throughout Britain and Ireland. The town’s response has been characterized by initiatives for reconciliation, including exchanges and festivals, peace walks and the building of a centre for peace named after the two children who died. The Archbishop of Dublin, Donald Caird, says that Warrington has become a byword for gracious response in the face of evil.

Warrington-Worldwide, the town’s on-line daily newspaper, reported in December 2001 that former IRA boss Martin McGuinness, now Northern Ireland Education Minister, had met the parents of the murdered boys. He had been invited to attend a concert in Warrington involving young people and schools by The Bridge, a local organisation set up to forge links with the people of Ireland. Wendy Parry, whose 12-year-old son Tim was killed, said, ‘At first I felt like I was betraying Tim by talking to a member of the group that killed him. But meeting Mr. McGuinness and speaking to him has helped me realise that we must put things behind us and carry on working for peace and reconciliation.’

McGuinness acknowledged the difficulty of the meeting, said he was conscious of the hurt inflicted, and told the parents that the killing of the children was wrong and shouldn’t have happened. He believes their meeting could have international significance. ‘I am indeed sorry that an Irish republican was responsible,’ he says. ‘But we now have a need to face the wrongs of the past.’

McGuinness and the families met in the Tim Parry Johnathan Ball Young People’s Peace Centre. Colin Parry, Tim’s father, said he believed the building had a huge role to play in the future in making young people realise that violence could never be the answer. Not everyone on the city welcomed the presence of McGuinness. Indeed, a poll taken at the time showed that most opposed his visit. Which underscores the courage of the parents and those working with The Bridge to move ahead anyway and the fact that forgiveness, repentance and reconciliation are not isolated acts but a journey to be undertaken for the long haul.

This is the approach of Jo Tuffnell, whose father, Sir Anthony Berry, was blown up by the IRA at the Grand Hotel in Brighton in 1984. In December 2001 the BBC TV programme ‘Everyman’ aired a remarkable programme reflecting her reaching out to the man behind the bombing, Patrick Magee. He had been sentenced to eight life sentences for his act and was released in 1999 as part of the Good Friday agreement. They met in November 2000. Tuffnell sees her exchanges with Magee as part of the peace process and necessary to her own healing. ‘I’m now much stronger as a person,’ she says. She tells me that she had doubted her decision to go public where the potential for being misunderstood was huge but can now write, ‘Yes, I can do it, I will share my truth. I will do everything I can to break the cycle of violence and revenge.’

Magee, too, is on a journey. He has apologized but still feels that Tuffnell’s father was a legitimate target. Interviewed by ‘The Guardian’ he was asked whether he worried that one day one of his victims would persuade him that what he had done was wrong. He answered, ‘Well, you have to allow for that possibility. All the participants are on their own separate journey. And I’m not at the end of that process yet.’ He is determined to become known now as a man of peace.

The Times, reviewing the programme, wrote, ‘What we saw in slow, and often painful stages, was a kind of therapy, in which two passionate, earnest individuals who you would expect to loathe each other, groped towards some kind of understanding and reconciliation. It was so intense and personal that at times you felt like an intruder, eavesdropping on lovers trying to repair a shattered affair. Above all it demonstrated what gruelling work forgiveness is.’

So, let us not look back in anger. 2001 was a watershed year for many. Bereaved families in many parts of the world can be excused for harbouring bitterness.Yet for all their imperfections the new alliances against terrorism and the coming together of Muslims and Christians, and the private decisions of millions to have new priorities, are all part of a positive response to the 11th of September. Firmly rooted, if sometimes hidden in the grossness of violence, there are journeys like those above that celebrate the wonder of life and the valour of forgiveness. These towers of faith outweigh the towers of infamy.

Let me conclude with another story of 2001. It was sent out by Reuters from Jerusalem. An Israeli, Yigal Cohen, who was for four months close to death, was saved by a heart transplant. The transplant came from a Palestinian, Mazen Joulani. Joulani’s father said he would be willing to donate his organs if it saved Jewish or Muslim lives. Cohen’s father said, ‘It is really touching, especially in these days when relations are so tense, this noble family comes and teaches us that it is possible to do things in a different way.’ Yaacov Lavie, the cardiologist at the hospital, told Israeli Radio, ‘When you are deep in the transplant operation you don’t think about it, but a moment later you think during the operation you held in your right hand the heart of an Arab Palestinian Muslimand in the other hand the heart of a Jew. You smile to yourself and see that deep inside we are exactly the same and all the conflicts are completely

Overseas is weird - and also wonderful.