The traffic signs that warn road users passing Woolwich Barracks that there are “soldiers marching” tell us lies today, well for the moment at least. Main roads around Woolwich Barracks are Sunday-afternoon-style quiet and what traffic does pass bye is as slow as a funeral cortege over road humps.
For the moment, gone are the soldiers in uniform busily cycling past, or the friends from different regiments laughing, joking and chatting together as they walk across campus. The totally unprovoked and barbaric murder of Drummer Lee Rigby tightly casts a melancholic pall across this part of town.
When soldiers are grievously injured or killed in action, in the “theatre of war”, it is a tragedy; many make the “ultimate sacrifice” which politicians tell us is so that the rest of us can sleep safer in our beds at night. The loved ones left behind trying to make sense of platitudes such as “they died doing a job they loved”, “serving their country”, or in “what they were trained to do” no doubt find cold comfort in such well-meaning utterances. Every person injured in battle has their life turned upside down, or worse still: ended. Somehow we have come to recognise as all too frequent the appeals from Help For Heroes, other charities and hospitals who all do great work; we are accustomed, too, to the sight of news media showing repatriations of Union-flag-draped coffins and the slow drive past respectful onlookers and lowered Standards in rural towns and villages. But the truly macabre and barbaric, brutal and uncalled-for execution of this twenty-five year old man walking peacefully down a road familiar to him in south east London will surely linger in many people’s minds and psyches for a long time to come. How will his family and loved ones ever work through their grief at such a brutal loss? Difficult and pathological grieving, sadly: here they come.
As I walked to Woolwich Barracks to lay flowers and pay my respects to Drummer Lee Rigby (name still unknown to us all at the time) a young Muslim woman stopped me and asked if I knew the deceased. “No” I said, “I just live nearby and feel so sad for the Solider and what has happened to him.” “Me too!” she exclaimed. We chatted for a while then parted. I am so sorry I didn’t say something about wishing her and her community peace; at this troubled time you could see she was suffering too, lost for words and choked with emotion.
But step back 48 hours and I was passing the very crossing Lee Rigby was murdered on, on my way to the supermarket. Just across the road is St Peter’s Catholic Church Woolwich. For some strange reason I really felt like I wanted to go in. As an ex-Catholic priest I usually side step any such urge! Today was different. I needed to go to the same supermarket, to buy flowers, but on this occasion I did go in to the church. Mass was just about to begin, with the principal celebrant one of the local area bishops and the Anglican bishop of Woolwich in attendance too. This was my first time to attend a Mass in about 15 years; it was prayerful and dignified, praying for the repose of the soul of Lee Rigby, for Her Majesty’s Armed Forces and for peace amongst the local communities and religions.
The fact that one of the callous killers uttered the ancient mantra “an eye for an eye …” indicates a motivation to kill based on the lex talionis, the law of talion or equal retribution. If we weren’t a modern democracy, striving – despite some failures – to treat everyone with dignity, respect and bending over backwards to afford good and bad alike with equal human rights, then we, too, might extract vengeance, ultimately with “a life for a life”: but it’s that vicious cycle which gets us all nowhere fast!
The fanatical extremists – or do I mean extremist fanatics – might claim allegiance to one religion or another, to one warped and twisted view of retribution, martyrdom and killing of the innocents, but what they seem to ignore in their fight against democracies, and the Lee Rigbys of this world, is that in the countries they ‘want us out of’, almost all the killings are being done by and against their very own brothers and sisters! Even hearing that Irish bishop at Mass today praying for Her Majesty’s Armed Forces would have seemed unthinkable in the dark days of the “troubles” in Northern Ireland. Yet nowhere, at any time in history, has the world truly been free of ‘troubles’, where unconditional peace has ruled supreme.
We are fortunate in London and the UK that killings – especially such brutal and grotesque ones as that of poor Lee Rigby – are mercifully few and far between, compared to other places throughout the world. Whether the motivation is fascism, imperialism or communism; religion or racism; the Mafia, IRA, Al Qaeda or the wrong-side-of-the-post-code gang, evil and brutality have always coexisted with goodness and peace. However human-a-response the lex talionis might at first, instinctively, appear, an equally ancient dictum: amor vincit omnia – love conquers all – cannot be sacrificed to get our own back on deranged bigots.
Drummer Lee Rigby – Requisecat in pace