Friday, 4 June 2010

Terror in a country town.

This week I had planned to write a comic little piece about the trials and tribulations involved in upgrading your internet connection. Then the news of the dreadful events in the Cumbrian town of Whitehaven unfolded on Wednesday and my store of cheap jokes shrivelled into dust before they had even been written.

Over the course of an early June afternoon Derrick Bird, a seemingly unprepossessing man living an unremarkable life in a quiet town, went on an armed rampage that left thirteen people, including Bird himself, dead, many more seriously injured and a whole country reeling with horror.

In Britain we still cling to the misguided notion that such things don’t happen here, or if they do then the horrors of Hungerford, Dunblaine and now Whitehaven are somehow less graphic than those perpetrated in Columbine or at Virginia Tech. Even the most cursory glance at the crime pages of the average provincial newspaper will turn up a catalogue of minor assaults, add to that the epidemic of knife crime in many of our major cities and the props are promptly kicked from under our feelings of complacency.

The ugly and unavoidable truth is that underneath British society, where levels of inequality are rapidly catching up with those in the US, bubbles a constant undercurrent of anger and resentment. Almost inevitably since the worst injustices are frequently visited upon the people with the least ability to communicate their feelings this breaks out into incidents of violence.

By now you could be forgiven for thinking that I am about to make a case for Derrick Bird being a victim of society and that although his actions were unacceptable he cannot be held fully accountable for them; I intend to do no such thing.

It has been reported that Bird was an ‘awkward loner’ and that he had ‘money worries’; many people live lonely lives and worry how to make ends meet, neither misfortune though is a fit excuse for indiscriminate murder. Derrick Bird, like everyone else, was blessed with the spark that lifts human beings above the level of animals, the ability, if he chose to do so, to be the captain of his own destiny.

However harsh the conditions they face nobody has to be a brute or a murderer, there is always another choice. For Derrick Bird to have so disastrously abandoned the bridge at the time when the personal storm he was facing was at its fiercest is a moral failure for which he and he alone must bear full responsibility. In that context it is telling that he took the coward’s way out of committing suicide rather than face the consequences of his appalling actions.

While the pain of what happened on Wednesday is still raw we should have compassion for the people of Whitehaven, in particular those people who had their lives destroyed in an instant by the lack of self control exhibited by a weak man, but in the longer term we must look closely at some uncomfortable issues.

However much people complain about civil liberties and, bizarrely, its possible effect on whether or not Britain enters a shooting team in the London Olympics, gun laws have to be tightened even further. The next time a tabloid columnist fulminates about the police being kept off the streets by the amount of paperwork they have to do it might be a good idea to remember that at least some of it is aimed at preventing people like Derrick Bird getting gun licences in the first place.

In the longer term we have to look closely at our behaviour as a society, for decades we have subscribed to the creed of ‘letting it all hang out’, no emotion is too dark or dangerous to be controlled; the events of Wednesday afternoon proved that we have been dangerously wrong.