Belfast, Northern Ireland
IN Northern Ireland the squalid and brutal murders of two unarmed, off-duty soldiers taking delivery of pizzas, followed by the execution of a police officer who was responding to a call for help, achieved what all acts of terrorism intend — the release into the body politic of the poisonous spores of fear.
In this case, the fear was all the more potent because it infected the psyche of all those who had lived through the Troubles, regenerating the memories of the darkness. The stigmata of those partly repressed memories were suddenly uncovered and they seemed as vivid as when we first encountered them. There was that almost forgotten surge of fear, then the uncontrolled free fall of emotions rushing through sorrow to anger before stalling in a sense of helplessness.
We recognized and acknowledged, too, the rituals that accompany such deaths — the television pictures of swaths of flowers that transform murder spots into temporary shrines; the bewildered expressions of those who lay them; the white-suited forensic experts carrying plastic bags; the voices of politicians in competitive condemnation. The fear also infected our children, many of them asking their parents questions about history to which it was difficult to find coherent or explanatory answers. In schools some children — and not just the children of police officers — openly expressed an ominous apprehension about the future.
The spoken and unspoken question was whether we were about to see the return of the Troubles. There was an implicit fear that the period of political agreement had merely been a mirage, what Seamus Heaney in his poem “North” described as “exhaustions nominated peace” — a temporary and arbitrary pause for respite.
Certainly, the dissident Republicans who carried out these murders, whether they called themselves the Real I.R.A. or the Continuity I.R.A., must have exulted over what their bullets had achieved, and like all jihadists who believe that killing people is the blood-petaled path to glory, must too in those immediate hours after the killings have felt a gratifying sense of their newly claimed power.
But something quite remarkable has happened in this country as the hours have turned into days. It started with ordinary people interviewed on television and radio who invariably expressed an abhorrence of “returning” or “going back.” At first it was clearly the product of a deep-seated fear of regression towards the abyss, a fear that the peace process itself would crack asunder with the impact of violence, but then the fear turned to anger — an anger that a small group of fanatics with little or no popular support should seek to subvert the will of the people of Ireland.
Across towns and cities people of all traditions assembled to protest in dignified but powerful silence. There was a constant reiteration that what had been achieved could not now be lost, that a peace process, for all its problems, could not be usurped and subverted by the gun.
Something else remarkable happened. In a country where politicians can argue about which way the wind is blowing, they instead lined up shoulder to shoulder, so physically and rhetorically close there was not the tiniest chink or warp of divergence, and expressed their unity in uncharacteristically crystalline language. So we saw Martin McGuinness — once a senior commander in the I.R.A., now a deputy minister in the local government — standing alongside the province’s Protestant first minister and chief constable as he labeled the killers “traitors,” his anger palpable.
Indeed, it was a crossing-the-Rubicon moment for many nationalists as their leaders condemned the killings and urged their followers to pass on any information to the police. What only a decade earlier would have been denounced as “touting” now became the moral responsibility of every citizen.
And then there was Jackie McDonald, a hard-bitten leader of the Ulster Defense Association — a Protestant paramilitary organization that had engaged in many sectarian murders — among the thousands who turned up for the vigil at Belfast’s City Hall. There as a passionate advocate for peace, he praised Mr. McGuinness for his public statements.
There was soon evidence also that paramilitaries on both sides were in communication with their former enemies, offering assurances. So what we initially thought was a potentially dangerous attack on what has been achieved in Northern Ireland, and what we momentarily feared might be the beginning of disintegration, has in fact served only to demonstrate the strength of the process of reconciliation and the inviolable strength of a community that has made its political differences subservient to an overwhelming desire for peace.
So even now, while in brooding housing estates blighted by poverty and corrupted by the commerce and culture of drugs, young men made bitter by the scourge of history throw their bricks and bottles and stones and perhaps dream of more killings; or in some shed deep in South Armagh where a car bomb is painstakingly being assembled, the dissidents that remain must struggle to suppress the insistent truth that while they have the power to kill, each killing merely serves to strengthen what they wish to destroy.
And so the other night when my teenage daughter briefly turned her eyes away from “The Simpsons” to ask in a curiously tentative voice if the Troubles were coming back, I was able to say, “No, no they’re not.” And what I also know is that despite its painful human tragedies, the past week has not been about going back but about how far we’ve come.