twin bombings at a marathon finish line in Boston, US, is hardly something I can ignore.
GM asked me to start contributing to the blog, as a kind of foreign policy commentator, raconteur and polemicist. For what it's worth, I am a real diplomat, have worked and travelled in over fifty countries, some nice, some not, and have had rather privileged access to the great and not-so-good of high and low society. I may or may not be a real Grey Mouse Lemur.
But now is not the time for such levity. I of all people should know that. I was cooking up an article on North Korea, but felt swayed by the images and sounds of pain and chaos being brought about in an unlikely location and at an improbable event. Twenty-second clips, when replayed over and over, become like constant montages of the awful moment. A ground-hog day in microcosm is generated. One notices a new face of panic here, a new barricade being torn down there, but the script is unchanging and one's senses dull lightly as the same brief event, with immediate consequences far beyond the merit of a twenty-second occurrence, takes hold. The clip never finishes with runners smilingly, tiredly finishing the race.
I have had the misfortune to be broadly present at four actual bombings and one failed one, and the fortune to have not been injured at any of them. Each are different, but with common threads of incomprehensible action and reaction.
The IRA attack in Manchester, UK, was my first. I shan't forget the sight of a six-foot man literally trampling fallen people underfoot in his desperate panic to escape. He didn't know what he was doing, of course. No-one did: the flight mechanism kicked in, and the rest was blank. A different man stopped running four miles away, before collapsing in the street through sheer shock and exhaustion. The political ideology of Irish Republicanism struck me at the time as having little to do with the gutted city centre of what was then Britain's capital of indy cool. I only learned later that to apply logic to these things is a fool's errand.
Gujarat was the second, albeit one much smaller in scale. Some little shit put a pipe bomb in a satchel in a litter bin in a bus station whilst I was waiting for a ride. I never found out why: some said he was a Gujarati separatist (I'd never heard of such a thing before or since), some that it was a religious thing, some that he was just the village idiot. No-one died that day, but plenty were cut and traumatised, and a new hole was torn in the social fabric of that community.
Then there was a wave of bombings in Sana'a, Yemen, targeting embassies, oil compounds and the like. Those were nasty - mortars mostly. Expats huddled in the evenings over well-past-its-sell-by-date beer at the one bar in town, furiously guessing as to where 'they' would strike next. That's when I learned properly what 'terrorism' actually meant. The terror is confined, obviously, not in the act itself. That is too limited in both time and space for the effect to be of the global political importance craved by the cracked minds that deal breathlessly in such carnage. No, it is in the gaps between the acts: the paranoia, the speculation, the recriminations.
Also in Yemen, but not linked to the above, was a curious incident when I went to recover my cat from the garden of my next door neighbour. She was sniffing around a plastic bag by the gate (I mean the cat, not the neighbour). I looked more closely and saw the sort of box that aluminium foil comes in, with curly wires sticking out of it, wrapped in what looked like newspaper. Strangely, even then I didn't get the message, and it was only when I saw that the newspaper was in fact bundles of anti-Zionist cartoons did I understand and realised I was staring with my face two feet from an improvised explosive device. Neither did the bomb go off nor was the individual that had lobbed it over the gate ever found. No explanations here. No particular insight into why this person felt it would help him or the world if a young diplomat's face was ripped off by a pound or so of (mercifully damp) ammonium nitrate.
Finally, there was the young boy on a football ('soccer') field in Kabul. He kicked a ball and lost his leg. Somebody had placed an anti-personnel mine inside it then stitched the halves together. I often think of that boy - he would have been around 12, I suppose - but I think more often of the person who did that to him. More specifically, I wonder what was going through his mind as he placed that Frankenstein ball on the pitch. Was there a part of him that had any doubts about what he was doing? He knew, certainly, that it would most probably be a local child - and a Muslim to boot - that would come and play with it. No NATO soldiers ever went near the place. He also knew it would be a random target: any young boy from the area. So did doubt cross his mind? Did he ever examine his motivations for this act? Or was he so pure of intent and self-righteous assurance that no space was left for such ponderings? Again, I have no answers for you, because - as is so often the case with these things - there is no-one except the bomber who can provide them.
Bombings are justified by those who conduct them for myriad reasons. Politics, war, terrorism, freedom, hatred, love, revenge and spite. But they are always 'just' in the eyes of the culprit. I used the phrase, 'cracked mind', above advisedly. I find it impossible to imagine that such actions could be anything other than the work of a psychopathic or sociopathic actor. In a sense, I am perhaps trying to find some pity even for the murderous, assuming - perhaps wrongly - that their actions are not fully under their control simply because they are so cruel and so irrational. I'm no psychiatrist, so I'll leave that thought open.
Worse, though, is that often - almost always, in fact - bombings work. For every politician that stands up and says that terrorism will never make them or their societies change path, I will show you a liar or an idiot. It's not their fault, actually. It's the way of things. The rapid withdrawal of US soldiers from Lebanon, the Good Friday peace accords with respect to Northern Ireland, and Algeria's policy of isolationist containment of its domestic terrorism problem by pushing it elsewhere, are but three examples of this. The reason we take our shoes off at the airport, and that the finish line at the London Marathon next weekend will now probably no longer be the joyous, open public event it once was, are others. Each bombing changes our lives, our security policy, our foreign relations, and how we view our own communities, minorities and politics.
The 15 April victims of Boston are another heavy reminder of just how far we have to go to understand the make-up and dynamics of mind and politics and madness and cruelty. There are no winners here - just tragedy. But in the days that follow, there will be plenty of time for the recriminations and the fall-out. In the meantime, all we can do is think of the victims and support those left behind.