Hope. That’s her name, in a language not her own. We’re chopping cabbage and grating carrots for coleslaw. Negotiating the unexpected hazards of the English language as we go. She stops from time to time to write down an unfamiliar word, the letters ill-formed. Childlike. She used to be a teacher, she says. In her own country. How hard it must be to start all over again, in a language that doesn’t even use the same alphabet as the one you’ve known all your life. To leave everything and flee your oppressors, only to find yourself in a hostile place where even your style of dress can put you at risk of being identified with the very people who threaten your life.
The mayonnaise stirred in, we find ourselves with time to talk. She’s tired, she says. She doesn’t sleep well. Her husband wakes often at night, and she has to get up early in the morning to pray. There’s a stirring in my conscience. It’s been a long time since I was so disciplined in any spiritual practice. Her face lights up as she talks about her faith. I’m not sure mine would these days.
The topic moves to families. She asks about my children. When I return the compliment I realise I’ve strayed over a boundary. She can’t look at me for a moment. She has four children, she says. One’s still with her. She’s lost two. The last has disappeared. She has no idea if she’s alive or dead. We hold one another wordlessly and weep. Yes, I’ve lost a child. How it feels to have no idea whether your child’s alive or dead, I can’t even begin to imagine.
Less than forty-eight hours on, I’m typing a tribute to my niece. It should be her twenty-fifth birthday. Instead, it’s a little over three years since the accident that took her life. My conversation with Hope blends raw with the pain of loss. It’s then the news of the Paris massacre begins to filter through. A hundred-and-twenty-nine lives pointlessly ended on a Friday night out in the city. Hundreds more changed for ever, by injury or loss. Hearts broken. Bodies maimed. More suffering piled upon that of the attack on Beirut the previous day. Upon that of all the attacks perpetrated in pointless wars throughout human history.
I’ve never understood the need to have everyone else see the world your way. I can see how it might be comforting to be convinced of your own rightness. But what if it turns out you’re wrong, or have only a part of the truth? What if you’ve brought misery to millions in pursuit of a mistake? Daesh, ISIS if you prefer, is only too willing to exploit this thirst for crude certainty. Fundamentalism, if you like. From medieval crusaders to the Hitler Youth, people have been seduced by its heady blend of triumphalism and self-assurance. It’s found in religions, political parties and patriotic movements the world over. It thrives on persecution. It feeds off fear and ignorance and grows like a weed in the face of opposition. The cruel and the clever exploit it for their own ends. The rest of us play directly into their hands when we retaliate in kind.
There are few phrases in the English language I dislike more than ‘collateral damage’. It sounds like a handful of tiles knocked off a roof. A couple of broken windows. An electricity pylon taken out of action for an hour or two. Inconvenient, but unavoidable. It masks a grim reality. Lives destroyed, hearts broken and loved ones lost for ever. Hope and her husband are collateral damage. Forty-three people in a market place in Beirut, their friends and their families are collateral damage. 4,287,293 refugees from the conflict in Syria are collateral damage. Real people, flesh-and-blood human beings. Just like you and me. Collateral damage is the price we pay for crude certainty. Someone else’s, more often than not.
I’m not in the habit of disagreeing with total strangers on Twitter, but this morning I was lured into a conversation by those very words. Collateral damage. A red rag, under the hashtag #PrayforSyria. There will surely be innocent lives lost (collateral damage) but you CANNOT berate France for defending herself, said the tweet. It was the mention of innocent lives, as if they were of no consequence, rather than the scarily blurred line between self-defence and retribution. I asked whether the tweeter would feel the same if said lives were those of his friends and family. He responded. Would I be tweeting #PrayforSyria if my friends and family had been in Paris? I wouldn’t be tweeting at all, I thought. But after a moment I realised that if I were, I’d be singing of empathy between the bereaved. Of art and music and poetry and all the other things that transcend man-made borders. Of Hope’s childlike trust that God will bring good from all her suffering. Of hearts brought together in the quest for peace. And of the inextinguishable beauty of the human spirit. I couldn’t squidge all that into 140 characters. Madam Empathy he called me. I think he meant it as an insult, but I wouldn’t want to be any other way.