Comment: Bringing it all back home

In a world of hate and violence, why should I not find a nail bomb on my own doorstep?
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The Independent Culture
ON THE day after the bombing of Belgrade began, I leapt on to a plane, not as a journalist headed for a war zone, but as a daughter- in-law who was travelling towards the final battle of a single life that was growing more provisional with every hour that I and my family hurtled through the atmosphere.

And there were many of those hours, for my father-in-law had emigrated to Australia nearly 20 years before, disillusioned - socialist unrealist that he was - with the geopolitical exigencies of life in Britain. Born in 1919, into a Europe newly at peace, he had been a committed pacifist all of his life. Among the first of the young men to be called up during the Second World War, he had seen it through as a conscientious objector. Having made his stand so early in the war, he had had no idea of the scale of the horror and evil that would later emerge, although he never really made it absolutely clear whether the wisdom of hindsight had prompted him to reject his decision.

Certainly he suffered for his choice, as did his family. Many years later, he married a ballsy New York Jew who, by the time their union had become a private war of attrition, could not resist railing at him for standing by and doing nothing as her people were systematically slaughtered.

As he lay on his deathbed, assaulted by cancer and held firmly in the seductive, unforgiving grasp of sister morphine, he knew that at the end of his life span events were picking up where they had left off at the start of it, with bloody, vicious war in the Balkans. So goes this century, and so go so many others before it. Only the terminally ignorant can now fail to be aware that, for the fanatics of the Balkans, the trouble all started with the Battle of Kosovo in 1389.

What ran though the mind of Professor Peter Self as he lay dying, for much of the time unable to speak, but still able to hear and to think? That his life as a pacifist had been a life lived very much against the grain of the 20th century was one thing. But what of his life as a distinguished academic, writer and educator? Did he die doubting the true worth of the significant contribution he had made to the fragile civilisation of humankind? Was he tempted to contemplate the carnage in Europe and conclude that we never, ever learn? It is a terrible thought, which didn't go away when some days after his funeral I realised that the service had been held on April Fool's Day.

Meanwhile, we had some practicalities to consider. Peter's death and funeral had taken place within a few days of our arrival in Canberra for a three-week visit. So there we were - in this absurd country that so recently and so tenuously had become a white man's country, and whose own land had been ethnically cleansed with the utmost brutality only a few generations before - far away from the war in Europe. We decided to take advantage of the commodity that Australia has more of than anything else, and hit the wide open spaces.

By the time we started driving through the countryside where Mad Max was filmed, we found ourselves having panicky thoughts about World War Three. Maybe we should stay in the bush and live with the blackfellas. The tribe who lived in this country was particularly bloodthirsty. Would I be subjected to circumcision and infibulation? Would my husband's urethra be yanked out of its fleshy protection, not to be put back until it had been exhaustively tenderised with the blade of a blunt knife?

By the time we'd traversed the continent, and reached the Darwin home of my husband's old friend Kerry, we were feeling pretty spooked. Kerry works for the government as community liaison officer for the leader of the opposition in the Northern Territory. Basically, he spends his time visiting the Aboriginal outstations of the Northern Territory, doing what he can for the dispossessed indigenous people of Australia, while at the same time attempting to persuade them that they really should be voting Labor.

Here, among the cultural workers and political activists of Darwin, the Kosovo tragedy was not making much of an impact. These middle-class white lefties are dedicated to the cause of the blackfellas and transfixed by the longstanding troubles in East Timor. There, fresh atrocities were taking place on the day we arrived. Massacre, ethnic cleansing, ignored UN resolutions - Darwin was quite the home from home. Except, of course, that Indonesia is a country that Europe still feels it can do business with.

One woman, who seemed nonplussed by our wish to devour CNN's coverage of the Kosovo crisis, kindly explained to me that Kosovo to them was like East Timor to us. We had, she'd wager, barely heard of it. I replied that thanks to the not inconsiderable and broadly positive influence of one John Pilger on the media in Britain, we were in fact quite well up on it.

I certainly knew what Pilger's line on Kosovo would be, even though I hadn't seen a British publication for weeks. How odd, I thought, that he is against the use of intervention in Belgrade, but seemingly in favour of it in Jakarta. Can UN violence really be so much more moral than Nato violence? Does it have to follow that the involvement of the US in any conflict means that the operation is unsalvageably tainted?

My own worry about America's idea of itself as the world's policeman is that since it's so good at misreading the situations it involves itself in, the US should really be a little more backward in coming forward. But that opinion isn't a matter of principle, just of practicality, and I find that many of the left's "principled stands" on war and intervention sound knee-jerky.

Thoughts of violence didn't let up even at the very moment we said goodbye to Australia. As a going-home present, Kerry gave us a pair of enormous, heavy old boomerangs. They weren't for hunting, he explained to us. These were punishment boomerangs. They were wielded in unison, working down both sides of the body, first breaking both collarbones, last breaking both ankles. After this, the smashed-up miscreant would be pissed on by all the women members of the tribe.

We got on the plane home, punishment boomerangs clanking, finally to see some British newspapers. They did not disappoint. Frederick Forsyth was calling for the unleashing of the dogs of war; Alex Salmond had kissed goodbye to his career by confusing his own unpardonable folly with Nato's; and the Socialist Worker, opportunistic as ever, was taking out ads in the national press and exhorting us to "Stop the bombing! Read Socialist Worker". If only ending wars were that simple.

Back home, I switched on the television news. The first, sketchy reports of a new bomb atrocity were being broadcast, this time not in Kosovo, but on the street where I've spent the vast majority of my Saturday afternoons over the last decade. In a world of hate and violence, why should I not come home from the other side of the world to find there is a nail bomb on my own doorstep?

Whether or not this was the work of Combat 18 is almost immaterial. The fact that anyone could make a call from the scene of an 18-year-old's murder in order to make such a hateful claim is simply more proof, if proof were ever needed, that violent, destructive, murderous hatred is a central part of the human condition. Plenty of modern Britons aren't above a little ethnic cleansing, any more than they were in the last century, when they arrived in Australia.

The only way to protest against this awful truth is Peter's way. But the only way we can really try to bring it to an end is by retaliating in kind. And in this way a peaceful humanity remains out of reach. I'm proud of what Peter did in the war, even though I'm also grateful to all of those who fought. There is no paradox here, any more than there is a paradox in the fact that for the foreseeable future, peace in this world is something that has to be fought for.

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