Thursday, 1 September 2005

Dancing with Terrorists

I arrived for a six week visit to our sister diocese of Peru about 10 days after the London bombings. A few days later a second set of bombers attempted, but failed, to set off four more devices. Everywhere I went I met huge outpourings of support for Britain. And the accompanying message was always, “We know what your country is going through. We have experienced terrorism here too”.

The effects of the Shining Path violence are still evident in Peruvian society. For about a decade the rural hinterland of the country was especially unsafe. Over that period millions flocked into the shanty towns or “pueblos jovenes” that surround Lima, mostly living in shacks made of matting. Economic life stagnated. Businesses failed. The Anglican Diocese itself almost collapsed totally as foreign personnel (especially targeted by the guerrillas) were withdrawn and Peruvian nationals with saleable skills headed north, to the USA or elsewhere. Priests told me of messages pushed under doors threatening to burn their churches down. Then, in the late 90’s, the government of President Fujimori (himself now in exile after fleeing corruption charges, but planning a new presidential bid next year) broke the back of the Maoist movement and Peru began to enjoy the peace, stability and economic growth that characterise it today.

Everyone I met had their stories of suffering from the Shining Path period. It was good of them to empathise with the present London experience, if somewhat overgenerous – it is unlikely that Britain will face anything remotely resembling the sustained attack on its structures and economy that Peru went through.

About a month into my stay, by which time I had been joined by 16 fellow members of the Diocese of Worcester, we were invited, with the permission of the prison authorities, to spend a day as part of our hosts’ long standing ministry to women prisoners. Sentences are undeniably harsh by European standards, particularly for women, and it is not uncommon to spend well over a year in custody awaiting trial. But the regime itself in some ways compared favourably. There are real efforts to teach skills, and mothers can have their children with them up to three years of age. The prisoners make craft goods which are then sold outside with the money returning to the producers to provide funds for extra toiletries, food etc. There was good access to outside telephones lines, though medical assistance is not as readily available as in European penal institutions. Much mirrored the conditions of life in the poorer areas of Lima itself.

With the exception of telephone kiosks the same seemed to apply in the maximum security section we visited after lunch. We were allowed, even encouraged, to take in a modest amount of cash with which to purchase handicrafts from the prisoners. There were few prison officers but the women told us there were no problems with violence. One block brought out guitars and sang songs to us and we replied with the “a capella” version of the 23rd psalm we had practised for such eventualities. Then they began a dance and invited us to join in. The women told us of how dramatically their conditions had improved in recent years. We were introduced to a tiny baby conceived during a conjugal visit to one woman from her husband who is a prisoner in another jail. We watched some of them making sculptures from clay and painting. And we learned that visitors are permitted for most of the day. Some prisoners told us that they are currently awaiting retrials because the law under which they had been convicted had been ruled unconstitutional. Then they began to speak of how they cared for each other because they were all members of the same party, and how their leader was prevented from mixing with the other prisoners. Suddenly the lack of religious pictures and scriptural passages on the walls (unusual for Latin America) struck home – these were the Shining Path members we had heard so much about on the outside.

One of the hardest things that Britain has had to cope with in these last few weeks has been the very normality of the lives of those who detonated bombs in London. We want the perpetrators of such atrocities to be radically different from ourselves, creatures of utter evil whose lives are depraved in every aspect. However, even allowing for some wrongful convictions, and for some whose offences may have been entirely non-violent, I can’t escape the fact that, in Peru, I have been dancing with terrorists. And that they were without exception pleasant, friendly, appreciative individuals.

I need to hold on to the fact that well-intentioned and caring individuals can commit appalling atrocities in the name of some cause deemed high enough to justify it. The original aim of Shining Path – to present a solution to the poverty and inequality rife in Peru by promoting a society based on the radical equality that underpins communism – is not of itself evil; indeed it has much in it that is laudable. The use of violence as part of the means to overthrow despotic regimes is the story of the liberation of Africa (and elsewhere) in the 20th century. Somewhere Shining Path lost the balance. It terrorised the general population more than it pressurised the government. And maybe it was ill-fated in presenting a communist solution at the very moment when that political philosophy was collapsing across the globe. It never succeeded in breaking out from being a small vanguardist force. Its attacks on Peru’s economy did not persuade the mass of the people that capitalism was the prime problem. Part of the tragedy of the recent bombings in London (and before that in Madrid and elsewhere) is that it is hard to see any realistic link between the political goals of the bombers and their actions.

It was a thesis of the French existentialist (and erstwhile international goalkeeper) Albert Camus that to understand all is to forgive all. For Christians I suspect that has to be a statement more about God than humanity. To understand is not automatically to forgive. Or maybe to forgive is not to exonerate from the consequences of a person’s actions. I’m glad, not least for the sake of the many friends I have made in Peru, that the Shining Path terrorism is a thing of the past, and that those who led it on its violent course are largely now behind bars. But I’m grateful that I was allowed, briefly, to see not only the scars that Peru bears from its history, but the humanity, the normality, and even the face of Christ, in some of those who bear responsibility for it, and who now serve out their sentences. And that the Anglican Church continues to minister in such places.

Posted by David Walker on Thursday, 1 September 2005 at 3:07pm BST
You can make a Permalink to this if you like
Categorised as: just thinking

thanks for the helped me today as some folks in the states are up in arms about looting in new orleans...while folks there are just trying to survive! people in pain and trauma do desperate things.
praying for peace in the uk and the us! lilly

Posted by: lillylewin on Friday, 2 September 2005 at 5:02pm BST

"...while folks there are just trying to survive! people in pain and trauma do desperate things." Lilly

My thoughts exactly and I don't think most U.S. Citizens aren't aware of this REALITY...only George Bush and his accomplices miss the "trauma" and "desperation" angle. They simply prefer to keep blaming/fearing/loathing *others* in our "society" instead of trying to work toward true equality, understanding and the healing of REAL social problems.

Giving those orders to "shoot to kill" in New Orleans yesterday/today is immoral, insane and will cause a huge backlash and RAGE against his current ruling Government if put into action.

The world is watching this ugly mess.

Posted by: Leonardo Ricardo on Friday, 2 September 2005 at 11:32pm BST

"I need to hold on to the fact that well-intentioned and caring individuals can commit appalling atrocities in the name of some cause deemed high enough to justify it."

- And you call yourself a Christian?


Posted by: David Wildgoose on Tuesday, 6 September 2005 at 7:59am BST

An example of well-intentioned and caring action:

An evangelical Peruvian village leader was executed March 20 after Marxist guerrillas declared him guilty of taking part in police and military activities.

Antonio Izuisa Chasnamote, the mayor of Ramal de Aspuzana, died from two gunshots wounds to the head following a "people's trial" conducted by some 20 terrorists, who identified themselves as members of the Shining Path rebel group. They had captured Izuisa as he returned from a sports outing with his eight children, who witnessed his execution.

David Walker - you are a gullible fool.

Posted by: Chris Carter on Tuesday, 6 September 2005 at 8:44am BST

Firstly, I'm grateful for all who read these articles and consider it worth adding a comment. We are trying to be (as the website is named) "Thinking Anglicans", so it is harder to engage with those who don't give a clue as to where their thinking is coming from (scripture, tradition, reason or whatever).

Chris Carter offers a story of a Shining Path atrocity from March this year as evidence that I am a gullible fool. If my gullibility is for imagining that SP is largely historic then I can only reassert that from the evidence of nearly two months in Peru, and many conversations with Christians, the terrorism is no longer the cause of daily fear for the mass of the population. Indeed I saw evidence of people moving back to rural areas they had abandoned a decade ago. If there are srtill isolated pockets of SP terrorist activity in Peru they are just that, very few and far between compared with previous times. (N.B. this is not excusing such actions when they happen)

I think both Chris and David Wildgoose (for whom I am simply shameful and unworthy of the name Christian) have not picked up the distinction I was trying to offer between the inward motivations of a person (or group) and the actions they may commit.

In scripture St Paul distinguishes betwen the sin and the sinner. Evangelical reasoning has often avowed "hate the sin, love the sinner" - a soundbite that can be a litle trite but will do for starters. From the Christian tradition Francis of Assisi learns to love the lepers whom he finds revolting (and society assumes culpable for their state). A more charismatic/experiential approach would see the obvious love and care in the lives of the prisoners I met as signs of God's grace.

I trust most who have followed this thread will have observed that I am not in any way condoning or minimising the atrocities committed by SP. The distinction is crucial because without it we have no hope of ever understanding the nature of terrorism, and without understanding it we will be condemned to continue to react helplessly or vengefully to terrorist events - and to simply vilify those who commit such offences as wholly and unredeemably evil; dividing the world into the cowboys in the white hats and those in the black hats. I hope that is not what either Chris or David are advocating, because that is the truly unchristian way to look at any of God's children.

Posted by: David Walker on Tuesday, 6 September 2005 at 10:03am BST

David, I wonder if you would extend the same plea for understanding to (say) concentration camp guards. Isn't there a point when 'understanding' becomes simple moral relativism? Your last paragraph sets up a wholly spurious antithesis. It is perfectly possible to condemn terrorism unequivocally without setting up a false dichotomy of guys in black and white hats. We are all flawed - there are no purely white hats. But some people do things which are wholly evil and their deeds should most certainly be vilified. Whether or not the people themselves are redeemable is for God (if he exists) to judge. But the state has a duty to protect its citizens by doing all it can within the bounds of law and morality to extirpate the vile phenomenon of terrorism.

Posted by: Anne on Tuesday, 6 September 2005 at 11:12am BST

Thanks, Anne, for helping me see where we may have got at cross purposes.

For me understanding is not "moral relativism" because the act of seeking to understand a person's motives or actions, or their aspirations and fears does not amount to either making or permanently refraining from making my own moral assessment of their behaviour.

I said in the original article that SP has committed atrocities, and I'm glad they are mostly locked up serving their sentences. The Peruvian government has, in my view, actually handled this situation rather better than many other examples across the globe. I'm nowhere trying to excuse or condone the terrorists' actions, simply to put them in the somewhat disturbing context of complex lives that are not implacably evil.

It is through the process of seeking to understand that we are able to then make moral judgements that are not simplistic. In particular it is vital that states wishing to extirpate terrorism make the effort to understand what is going on and are not led by the baying of the mob (which in my country is usually led by the popular newspapers).

Thanks again for a helpful posting, most of which I agree wholeheartedly with.

Posted by: David Walker on Tuesday, 6 September 2005 at 4:37pm BST

Thanks, David, for your courteous reply. I'm not sure however that you answered all my points. I didn't say that seeking to understand a person's motives is necessarily moral relativism but that there is a point when it can slide over into that very thing. Some of the comments on the 7/7 bombings seem to have reached that position. And perhaps you agree with me that people who take a tougher line than you might on understanding terrorists don't all make a simplistic manichean division of the world into good and bad people.

I don't know anything about Peru so I'm not making any specific comments about the guerillas. I had a couple of other examples in mind. Yes, we might need to understand the motives of the Nazis as far as this is possible (I'm a historian by the way!). But when we do reach some level of understanding then it becomes clear that their mental world was one of murderous paranoia legitimized by horribly bad science and a spurious sense of victimhood. A more recent example is the London nail bombler, whose name I forget, who killed the gays in Soho. I can't really see the point of understanding his extreme homophobia. It exists and is vile. He certainly needs help but that's not the same as 'understanding'.

Now here am I lecturing a bishop, but there's a dark side to human nature, isn't there? I think it was Chesterton who said that original sin was the only Christian doctrine that could be proved. Some people just enjoy killing and torturing. They may start off fighting in a cause that seems good (and may indeed be good) but at some stage something else takes over. In the old days we called it the devil. I think that sometimes liberal Christians in their commendable quest for social justice downplay one of the great insights of Christianity.

Did you see Amos Oz's excellent article in Saturday's Guardian? Jews don't believe in original sin of course, but at their best they have a splendid moral clarity.

Posted by: Anne on Tuesday, 6 September 2005 at 4:59pm BST

Anne is spot-on.
Whatever the SP murderers (am I allowed to use that word?) were, or the Soho nail bomber or the other examples whom she mentions, they were not "well intentioned and caring" now were they??!

Posted by: Chris Carter on Wednesday, 7 September 2005 at 8:18am BST

Thanks again Anne. I wonder whether we might agree that on the one hand the effort to understand can slide over into moral relativism and on the other a reluctance to understand can slide into manicheanism.

I don't for a moment want to play down the dark side to human nature. What I'm after is recognising its universality. The heart of the doctrine is that ALL have sinned and fall short. In writing about the normality of those who commit terrorist atrocities I'm trying to invite us to look into our own souls and recognise the latent tendancies there. Psychological studies have shown repeatedly that when human beings are given an apparent legitimation for acting abominably, very many seize the chance with apparent gusto. There are some obvious practrical examples of this. The nazi era is a good one. Another would be the violence against suspected paedophiles which a popular UK newpaper campaign unleashed some years ago.

Finally, I think I do want to understand the nail bomber. Not in order to in any way excuse or mitigate the evil of his actions, but to understand the role society played in the evolution of his character to the point where he did what he did. Indeed, churches (maybe especially the more conservative ones?) need to examine how their positions on human sexuality may be used as legitimation for criminal activity. It's not a large mental step from "God hates fags" to assuming one is the instrument of divine vengeance.

Posted by: David Walker on Wednesday, 7 September 2005 at 10:41am BST
Post a comment

Remember personal info?

Please note that comments are limited to 400 words. Comments that are longer than 400 words will not be approved.

Cookies are used to remember your personal information between visits to the site. This information is stored on your computer and used to refill the text boxes on your next visit. Any cookie is deleted if you select 'No'. By ticking 'Yes' you agree to this use of a cookie by this site. No third-party cookies are used, and cookies are not used for analytical, advertising, or other purposes.