The al-Shabaab massacre in Nairobi leaves a litany of unique tragedies

In these mass killings, it is the deaths of lovers that grieve me most

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According to Giles Foden, author of The Last King of Scotland, what the militant group al-Shabaab, was “really attacking” when it went on the rampage in Westgate shopping mall, was “the very idea of capitalism”. A four-year-old boy from Britain, whose mother had already been wounded in the attack, had a different moral take on the massacre. “You’re a very bad man,” he told one of the gunmen. Sometimes you get nearer to the truth if you keep it simple.

Whether the story has grown wings, whether the gunman really was shamed by the boy’s words, handed him a bar of chocolate and begged for his forgiveness, saying: “We are not monsters”, I’m not in any position to know. It would be nice, though, to think that the little boy had time to say: “Oh yes you are. And don’t give me any of that what you’re really attacking is the very idea of capitalism crap.”

Ever since Mary Beard responded to 9/11 by saying the Americans had it coming, that the “civilised world” (her inverted commas) was paying a very high price for refusing to listen to “terrorists” (again her inverted commas), that there were few people on the planet who “devised carnage for the sheer hell of it” – thereby setting up a false opposition between mindless carnage and principled carnage – ever since then I have taken a dim view of the argument that very bad men must have a case or they wouldn’t be very bad men. What very bad men often have is an inflated sense of grievance, coupled with an unswerving conviction of rectitude, which makes them, if anything, even worse men than if they were acting for the sheer hell of it. May God save us all from terrorists – no inverted commas – with a cause.

It isn’t that difficult morally to sort out. A four-year-old can do it. If the killer is firing indiscriminately he’s a very bad man. If he’s firing discriminately – as in this case firing only at those who don’t subscribe to the Muslim faith – he’s a bad man doubly cursed. For Allah will no more forgive him than Jesus will. Marx on the other hand … but then that’s why no man of feeling should be a Marxist.

At the heart of one’s outrage on such occasions is a piercing sadness, like a voice from the whirlwind. The innocent die whenever guns are raised, and one could give one’s life over to sorrow, imagining how many have been ruined since time began in wars of ideology of no concern or value to anyone but the combatants. Dying in a just cause is cruel enough, but dying because some misbegotten sect misreads history in a way that flatters the ignorance of its members, is crueller still. I thought that was going to be the way of it for all of us after 9/11. And it might be yet. But certainly, at the time, I stood on the balcony of my apartment and saw towers topple before my eyes and waited for the fire to come roaring over the rooftops. And then the question was – did I want my wife to be with me as I burned or was it better for her to be far away, somewhere safe, if anywhere safe was left. Better to burn together, melded into one, rather than one be left behind to mourn?

Call me a melodramatist. Call me a sentimentalist, too, if you think that’s the word for me. But it’s always the lovers destroyed in an atrocity that I find myself grieving over first. They can be young lovers or they can be old lovers. Just-marrieds on honeymoon or grandma and grandpa taking a golden-wedding holiday in the wrong place. One still alive but as yet ignorant of the other’s death is hard enough to bear – how would you do it, you wonder, how would you fare at the moment of being told, or in the thousands of nights that follow, how would you survive a single one of them? – but a beloved pair going together wreaks havoc in me. I have only to discover that they died hand-in-hand and I’m finished. This time, I read of two who died huddled together, two become one for the final time. Like the Phoenix and the Turtle, either neither. So was there time enough for one to sorrow for the other or for both to sorrow for themselves? And if there was the briefest moment of clarity, each for each – ah, the pity of it – was there consolation in that? A last confession of devotion in the eyes? Can love do that?

I’ve been reading lovers’ goodbye stories since I was a boy, mooning over them in opera and operetta, as though a goodbye was the thing I had to work hardest on because I knew I’d make such a bad job of it when the time came. But there was a sweetness in the goodbyes I rehearsed with the lights out in my bedroom. The Student Prince kisses his Heidleberg barmaid farewell because duty calls, but at least both of them are left intact and beautiful to love another day.

To be gunned down together, though, is of another order of sadness. We all know love is fragile. Who’s to say that lovers who die in one another’s arms would even have been together 10 years on? So in one way atrocity forces a sort of happy ending on them. But that fragility also measures the callousness of the killings. Love is the antithesis to the ideology in whose name everyone – everyone of the wrong faith on the day, that is – must die.

There are no bad men in the world when we flutter in each other’s embrace. And that is why love matters: it’s our last illusion.

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