Friday, 15 July 2016

Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité

Close-up of names on Wedmore War Memorial with St Mary's Church in background

I have been enjoying a period of calm away from London and back in the area of Somerset in which I grew up. Looking at the familiar Mendip Hills and the tranquil Somerset Levels, it is even harder to fathom the madness in the world. 

Then comes news of another tragedy in Nice, France.

ITV tweet re Nice attack

The tranquillity of Thiepval Woods in France was torn apart by the Battle of the Somme one hundred years ago. The First World War touched every community – the local village war memorials bear testament to that. 

In the local churchyard there is also the grave of a man who died afterwards of his injuries in Winchester Military Hospital. The horrors of war continued long after hostilities stopped. They lived on in the memories of survivors and the bereaved.

There is a shiny plaque inside St Mary’s Church, Wedmore. It looks new. It seems more likely that it has been polished for the recent World War One commemorations.

I was shaken when I read the words on that plaque. It commemorated the loss of a couple’s only son. He was shot through the heart while leading an attack. He is buried in Ploegsteert Wood in Belgium near the French border. He was exposed by being a little too far ahead of the rest.

Close-up of plaque with details of death of Stanley Benskin Henson in Wedmore's St Mary's Church

Stanley Benskin Henson, Second Lieutenant in the 1st Somerset Light Infantry, lived over a hundred years ago. He died on my birthday. When I looked him up online, I discovered another coincidence: he was born on my elder son’s birthday. It really hit home what peace in Europe means at that moment.

Today, I have been shaken again by the tragic news from Nice. I can’t help thinking about how my sons and I walked, without a care in the world, along Nice’s Promenade des Anglais in 2015. My heart, thoughts and prayers go out to the families of the bereaved, the injured and all those affected.

On such days, we share a common humanity and solidarity. It is a pity that it always seems to take a tragedy to bring us all together. In another coincidence, the murdered British MP, Jo Cox, is buried today. I recall her words:

“We are far more united and have more in common
with each other than things that divide us”

On such days, we come to appreciate the freedoms that were won in two world wars. It is so easy to be complacent. Terrorists will not win. It is hard to see how security forces can anticipate the crazed activities of every isolated extremist.

Increased intrusion into our lives, tightened security and extended states of emergency won’t deal with the issue. Instead they may rob honest, law-abiding citizens of their hard-won freedoms.

Not all social change can be imposed by legislation from the top down. It has to come from the bottom up - from all around us - from all of us.

We take our freedom for granted and do not notice its gradual erosion. We too easily believe that the behaviour of an isolated, extremist minority reflects the beliefs of a whole ethnic community.

We tend to believe that our vote and voice do not count or make a difference. Today, many are sending out prayers and messages to Nice on Twitter. It’s hard to know what to say. We are not all blessed with the gift of the gab. We feel powerless. Our words feel inadequate.

Every tweet and message sent into the apparent ether adds up. It is important that the voice and conscience of the honest, caring, law-abiding silent majority drown out the atrocities of terrorists and extremists.

Unfortunately, we know again today that there is much work to be done in healing the world’s communities.

I think of France’s inspirational Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.

Liberté: We have freedom, but it is under threat and still not shared by the whole world.

Egalité: Could do much better. It’s not all about legislation. It’s about mindset.

Fraternité: This is the responsibility of every citizen not just politicians. Why does it always take a tragedy to draw us closer together? It only takes a smile and a kind word - regularly and on ordinary days. Others may appear different, but they hurt and bleed just like us.

My prayers are with Nice on this dark day.

Pic of promenade looking towards Nice lighthouse at dusk, sea to right