Seeing Human

Today's generation of news-following children will have seen Saddam Hussein led to the scaffold, heard shot-by-shot accounts of Osama bin Laden’s assassination and watched a bleeding, battered and terrified Muammar Gaddafi in the moments before his death.

The Libyan leader was a bona fide villain on the international stage but I was chilled by the images because they were so reminiscent of an event that shook Northern Ireland when I was aged 11. The so-called “corporal killings” were captured by TV crews in Belfast in 1988.

Two non-uniformed soldiers drove, reportedly by accident, into the funeral procession of an IRA volunteer. Initially, the crowd thought they could be under attack by Loyalists - as had happened at a previous funeral - and one of the two corporals brandished a handgun as their car was surrounded and the windows smashed.

The savagery of what followed horrified, sickened and terrified Ireland. It revealed the toxicity of the hatred which had poisoned the province.

Any danger the men posed had been eliminated but, as a helicopter hovered above, they were taken away, stripped to their underwear and socks, thrown over a wall, beaten viciously and repeatedly shot.

There was no room for pity, no space for compassion, no hint of justice, and no suggestion of shared humanity.

The phone-footage of Gaddafi’s last moments captured the same jostle of the mob and an expression of helpless bewilderment and terror in the face of the condemned man.

Yes, he was a war criminal himself, but here was a human treated like a wheezing bull awaiting the matador’s sword.

When the Berlin Wall tumbled down, the democratic revolutions were remarkable for the absence of lynchings. Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife were executed after a brisk trial but such treatment was the exception.

The desire for vengeance was outweighed by the thrill of freedom; people power shattered Soviet repression but the mob did not become a monster.

Today’s children are growing up in a West reacquainted with violence. Politicians openly talk about killing terrorists and interrogation tactics that look like torture are defended glibly.

Aerial strikes by pilotless drones are a key tool in the War on Terror and if it is true hundreds of civilians have died in areas such as the borderlands of Pakistan their deaths will be of historic significance.

Ireland is still living with the consequences of 1972’s Bloody Sunday when 13 people died from gunshots. In the Middle East the tales of people who perished as “collateral damage” will be passed down the generations.

It is a mark of civilisation to perceive and honour the humanity of a foe. If we lose this bond we unleash barbarism.

A Thursday Column

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