The night before we left our cottage in Donegal we watched the film “Bloody Sunday” to prepare for our visit to the city. Derry/Londonderry is a border city in Northern Ireland, and “Bloody Sunday” is the name given to the 30th of January, 1972, when fourteen people were shot dead by the British Army, and twelve others were wounded. Now – I’m going to get more specific in the explanation, but the details are contentious and still disputed – so stay with me.
Derry/Londonderry has a long history of sectarian violence and disruption. In the 1970s, the British Army was stationed in Northern Ireland to patrol the streets and “keep the peace.” (In fact, they were deployed in 1969 and the operation officially ended on the 1st of July, 2007). Protests weren’t uncommon, and often ended in rioting, usually led by teenagers (not unlike what’s been happening here, colloquially known as the ”fleg” protests.) There was a civil rights march that day, which was meant to be a peaceful protest against internment without trial (at the time, the government could arrest and intern anyone suspected of being involved with the IRA without a proper trial). However, some of the marchers began to throw stones, etc. at the heavy military presence. This is where it gets really fuzzy. The army maintained that they were being fired upon by the IRA, which is why they opened fire. An initial inquiry by the British government into the incident concluded that the people injured and killed had, in fact, been armed. However, that’s now been proven false with a second inquiry. You see, the first inquiry, many believe, was carried out swiftly in an effort to clear the British Army – and, therefore, government – of any wrong-doing. The second inquiry, known as the Saville inquiry, cleared the names of those people who, for over thirty years, were officially seen as members of the IRA. Prime Minister David Cameron issued a statement in 2010 in which he apologizes, stating:
“Mr. Speaker, I am deeply patriotic. I never want to believe anything bad about our country. I never want to call into question the behavior of our soldiers and our army, who I believe to be the finest in the world. And I have seen for myself the very difficult and dangerous circumstances in which we ask our soldiers to serve. But the conclusions of this report are absolutely clear. There is no doubt, there is nothing equivocal, there are no ambiguities. What happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong.”
As part of our time there, we toured the Museum of Free Derry. It gives a history of the city, with special emphasis given to the events of Bloody Sunday. We didn’t have an official guide through the small museum, but a tour was going on, and a few of us loitered a few steps behind in order to hear the insight provided by the guide. The man giving the tour lost his brother on Bloody Sunday. Read: he witnessed his brother’s murder along with the murder of his friends. Most of the fourteen killed were teenagers, and this guy’s brother was no exception. He was 17.
Before I move on, let me say this: I spend most of my life trying to objectively view the world around me, but I have an incredibly difficult time remaining objective about Bloody Sunday. Teenagers were shot in the back as they ran. A priest was shot as he waved a white flag while he was trying to help someone else. Human nature got the better of those soldiers, most of whom were only around 19 or 20 themselves.
Anyway, the tour guide was asked if he felt that justice had been done to his brother’s name with the release of the Saville Inquiry. He didn’t hesitate. “Oh, no,” he said. ”We got truth, but we still haven’t got justice.”
It’s an incredibly interesting response, no? And it opens up a world of other questions. What is truth? What is justice? What’s the difference?
In the class I took at the WAVE in the fall, we explored truth recovery as a means of dealing with the past. We also explored justice: from a top-down approach (meaning from the government or an international organization with an emphasis on punishing the offender) as well as a bottom-up (this would tend to be known as transitional or restorative justice – meaning that you work within the context of the society you’re in [with victim, offender and community] rather than applying a “one-size-fits-all” approach. This has more of an emphasis on overall healing and less on punishing the offender). So what kind of justice is this guy talking about?
You see, another thing that complicates the situation is the fact that the soldiers involved on Bloody Sunday have never been named. The British government is well aware of who they are, because they were interviewed for both inquiries. They’ve also never been charged with a crime, much less tried and convicted. In fact, no one has ever been charged with a crime in relation to the events of Bloody Sunday.
The search for justice seems to always be accompanied by the question, “Who’s actually responsible?”
And who is responsible for the loss of life on Bloody Sunday? The soldiers? Well, they were just following orders. So is it the people giving the orders, then, with no personal responsibility belonging to those who pulled the trigger? Do we lose the ability to discern the difference between right and wrong when following orders or commands? Is it an excuse or not? Do we then punish the people giving orders? What if it’s a system, not a person, that needs to be held responsible?
I have approximately zero answers to these questions. And these questions far predate January 1972.
A large part of the reason I’m on my current life trajectory is because of a class I took my senior year of high school. For those of you who don’t know, I had the great privilege of attending the SC Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities for my junior and senior years. It was (and is) an incredible institution that strives to develop the whole student, and is true to its name in emphasizing both the arts and the humanities. The class was “Facing History and Ourselves: The Holocaust and Human Behavior,” and to my direct knowledge it’s still taught every other year (by the same phenomenal teacher who taught my class. His name is Rusty Godfrey, and you can read about him in this article, published when he was named the 2012 Daughters of the American Revolution Outstanding Teacher of American History. Which he totally deserved. A thousand times over). Anyway, the class forced us to look outside of the realm of our seventeen-year-old selves, and into the lives of everyday people living in one of the most violent times in world history. We explored racism, prejudice and bigotry by first discovering, naming and acknowledging our own prejudices. We explored the complexities of victims, perpetrators and bystanders. And I have been plagued by those discussions ever since. Where does the fault lie for one of the greatest atrocities ever known to mankind? Hitler? His officers? The SS guards running the camps? The Polish train operators? The citizens of several countries who watched their neighbors disappear without asking questions? Can the bystanders – average people – really be blamed if the safety of their families was at stake? If a train operator, doing the job he’s had all of his life, had decided not to operate trains with people packed into cattle cars, he would have been shot and replaced. But are we not held to that high of a standard by the God of justice? Where’s the line? What’s the line? Is there a line?
Does your head hurt yet?
I mentioned that we watched the film “Bloody Sunday.” I had a hard time after the film was over because of one scene in particular. One of the characters the film follows is a teenaged guy. He’s shot by the army, and his friends put him into the back of a car to drive him to the hospital. They encounter an army road block, and his friends are forced to abandon him there, in the back of the car. When he arrives at the road block, he’s alive. The film shows the soldiers examining him, and then leaving him there. The film also shows a pair of hands planting nail bombs on him – but doesn’t go so far as to blatantly show the army doing so. He dies, there at the roadblock. Now, I’m not saying that the film’s interpretation of the events on that day are factual. The story of this teenager parallels an actual storyline of Bloody Sunday, and many people are divided on the issue of whether or not the nail bombs were planted on him, and therefore whether or not he was a member of the IRA. He’s the only one of the people killed who was found with any sort of weapon on their person. What bothered me was the portrayed indifference of the soldiers at the checkpoint. What bothered me was not whether or not this happened exactly as it was being shown, but that it does happen. It happens all the time. It is happening. I was physically sick at the thought of someone – anyone – being left to die under any circumstances.
We ended the Holocaust class with a discussion about other genocides of the 20th and 21st centuries. This would have been November/December of 2005, right around the time the genocide in Darfur was gaining global attention. Our teacher posed this question to us: “Do you think you have a responsibility for the Holocaust? For Armenia? For Bosnia? For Cambodia?” to which we all responded, “No…how could we?” And then he said, “What about Darfur?” At which point we fell silent. Eventually, one of us timidly asked, “But what can we do about Darfur?” I can’t remember his exact answer, but I think it was something along the lines of, “you can work to make the world into a place where genocide doesn’t happen anymore.”
I was talking to Doug after we’d finished watching and discussing the film, and I was telling him about this class and the things I took away from it, namely my convictions about the ethics of societal responsibility. I told him that I walked away from that class with the belief that we are all responsible to and for one another, for all things in all time. He responded with something along the lines of, “Yes, and how much more so when we benefit directly from any atrocities of human rights.” That’s about the point my head exploded.
The fact of the matter is, we do benefit directly from atrocities of human rights. I don’t mean that we somehow all benefit from the deplorable and deteriorating situation in Syria, but somebody does. And is it not an atrocity of human rights that farm laborers in Spain live in plastic shanty-towns, thousands of miles from their home countries, so that we can enjoy Spanish produce? The list, I’m afraid, is endless.
Doug shared a story with us during one of our devotional times in Donegal. It goes something like this: A traveller comes across three tradesmen doing the exact same thing. He asks the first tradesman, “What are you doing?” The man replies, “I’m stacking stones.” He approaches the second tradesman and poses the same question. The second man replies, “I’m building a wall.” He approaches the third and final tradesman. Again he asks, “What are you doing?” The man replies, “I’m building a cathedral, to bring glory to God.”
I think Mr. Godfrey was right. What can we do about human rights atrocities? We can work to make the world into a place where they don’t happen anymore. We do this by speaking in kindness to friends and strangers alike. We accomplish this by considering all of the hands that work to provide us with a product or service, and refusing to buy or participate if all involved parties aren’t treated fairly. Empowering other people to do the same. Practicing radical forgiveness. Loving. Praying. Laughing. Knowing. The list, I believe, is endless. We’re not stacking stones. We’re building the Kingdom of God.
“…for I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me…”
“Then I saw ‘a new heaven and a new earth,’ for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
“Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be your name, your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven…”