One Anglican bishop denounced the 'white feather cowards' responsible for the evil deeds. His comment hurt pacifists. Many of those given white feathers in the First, and even the Second, World War were precisely those who refused to commit acts of violence at government orders and who suffered as a consequence.
Strong language was not confined to churches. A Scottish politician condemned 'unequivocally and totally' any acts of violence in pursuit of political aims. 'No cause on earth can justify the risk of maiming or hurting individuals and such obscenities have no place in politics.' An Irish citizen living in London wrote to a national newspaper to ask what on earth the IRA thought they were going to achieve 'by such downright brutal and totally unmilitaristic means of fighting'.
I am not surprised at the level of indignation. Those who make and plant bombs are directly responsible for the innocent lives they claim. It is particularly poignant when those lives are of the very young who have years of joy and hope ahead of them. But I am surprised at the selectivity of the indignation. Terrorists in Ireland come in two categories: murderous republicans and murderous loyalists. As far as killing the innocent goes, they run neck and neck in blood.
A major problem with all this condemnation of violence is that it comes from so many people and groups who have no hesitation about it when they think it is our own national interest. Gerry Adams has referred to 'meaningless platitudes about violence'.
Do we condemn all acts of violence in pursuit of political aims? Are they in fact unreservedly condemned? Unfortunately not. We have not suddenly been reconverted to the pacifism of third-century Christianity. Acts of violence in pursuit of political aims have for centuries been blessed, prayed over and even glorified by churches when they happen to be acts of violence undertaken by governments - our governments.
It was the deaths of children which caused the level of outrage about Warrington. A toddler and a teenager cruelly done to death. But how many children did we kill, and are we still killing, in Iraq as a result of the Gulf war? It was supposed to be a clean war. Night by night we were misled about precision bombing. We followed the guided missiles on television right down to their always military targets. 'Surgical strike' was the term. Only after the war was it admitted that only 7 per cent of the bombs used were laser- guided. The rest - about 80,000 tons - were free-falling bombs and at most 25 per cent of them found their targets.
What targets? And where did the others fall? Twenty-eight civilian hospitals and 52 community health centres were destroyed in the process of bombing Iraq back to the pre-industrial age. The Geneva Convention Protocol of 1977, repeating the spirit of all previous international law, said that parties to a military conflict 'shall at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants . . .'
Thousands of children died in Iraq during the war. The deaths did not end with the war. According to an international group of physicians, reporting on a visit to Iraq, more than 40,000 children below the age of five died in the first eight months of 1991 alone. Where were the churches then, and where were the denunciations? The Pope was clear enough but he stood almost alone in his opposition. Most church leaders in England supported the war.
The excuse was that we had to get Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait and that this was the only way to do it. In other words the ends justify the means. That is exactly the implicit message both of the IRA and of the loyalist paramilitaries. One lot want a 32-county Ireland, and the other no change in the British connection. For both it is just too bad if innocent people get in their way.
There is nothing new about the total air war against Iraq and all its people. Total air war against civilians as well as combatants has a long tradition. Not long ago a statue was put up to Marshal of the RAF Sir Arthur Harris on church property in the Strand. All the great and the good attended, including the Queen Mother. Had we lost the Second World War 'Bomber' Harris might well have faced a War Crimes Tribunal. His policy, like that of Churchill, was to try to terrorise the German population into submission by massive city-centre bombing raids.
The flattening of Dresden in 1945 was not a one-off. It was the culmination of a process. Harris developed his methods long before the war. In 1924, as a Squadron Leader, he was part of the air policing team which was meant to provide colonial rule in Iraq on the cheap. Harris then wrote: 'The Arab and the Kurd now know what real bombing means in casualties and damage. They now know that within 45 minutes a full-sized village can be practically wiped out, and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured by four or five machines.' He wanted casualties which would produce 'a real as opposed to a purely moral effect'. How many of his victims were children, I wonder?
Do we really condemn all violence in pursuit of political aims? One of those at the unveiling of the Harris statue was Leonard Cheshire. There can be no question but that Cheshire for many long years practised personal charity to an extraordinary degree. The leadership qualities he showed in wartime he put to wonderful use in peacetime. But Cheshire took an active part in the atomic bombing of Nagasaki in 1945, three days after the total destruction of Hiroshima. If no one then knew anything about radiation effects, at least those air crews must have known perfectly well that they were on their way to kill thousands of ordinary civilians in undefended cities. As George Zabelka - the US Air Force chaplain who ended his life dedicated to nonviolence - admitted, the long series of fire raids on other Japanese cities had blunted their consciences.
But Cheshire never had scruples about the Nagasaki raid. To the end of his days he justified it because he knew that it was the only way to end the war in the Far East. No matter that Eisenhower, Montgomery and others disagreed. Cheshire knew that there would have to be an invasion of Japan and he knew that it was likely to cost 3 million lives. His conclusion was therefore that it was better to kill 200,000 Japanese civilians and to end the war. Once more the ends were made to justify the means: IRA doctrine exactly. Civilians are expendable; only the cause matters.
Is this all a call for Christian conversion to absolute pacifism? Not so, though it wouldn't hurt to learn our own history. What I ask for is a little less denunciation, a little more peacemaking and a little more honesty from the churches. Apart from the Quakers and the Anabaptist communities our Christian histories are all histories of blood.
This is an edited version of a talk delivered on Radio 4 last week.Reuse content