An outrageous way to weigh up an outrage

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A conundrum for my readers. Looking south from my hotel balcony I see the Roman Forum, a hundred quivered archers at the ready, the Venus de Milo in the courtyard, wistful without bow or arms to tense it. Looking north I see a woman in Mexican petticoats sweeping the steps of Montezuma's temple, and men in lederhosen cleaning out the swimming pool. Twitch your nose and you smell the dust of Morocco, but go onto the streets and everyone's from Barnsley, subdued, until the karaoke starts, by the heat, the cleanliness, and the utterly undemonstrative helpfulness of the natives. Everything you have always wanted, if you are from Barnsley, in some respects everything you have always known, but transported somewhere else and in the process changed beyond recognition. Only you, your mountain belly and bad legs the same. So where am I?

Not much of a puzzle, I know. I am in Tenerife. Of course.

Enjoying it, too. Enjoying the light, the ease, the fish in garlic, the plentiful wine, and the spectacle of general good-heartedness, because the infirm come here to dry in the sun, to take advantage of the navigability of the place, the wheelchair-friendly pavements and promenades, and where their chairs come, there come also people who must push them. Such a cultural wasteland, yet so much kindness. Lives lived, it sometimes looks, without a grain of intellectual curiosity, but given over to sorrows and self-sacrifice of a sort they don't teach in universities.

Sentimental to think this way, I agree. But the newspapers in this peaceful, uncontested, made-up place are full of the latest suicide bombings, and when I try to enter the mental terrain of a suicide bomber I find myself a long long way from here, not in a refugee camp or bomb-pitted street, but in a university. One of those dangerous places of little learning, where small knowledge fuels great convictions.

I wouldn't want not to have gone to university myself, I wouldn't want to occupy forever a Tenerife of the mind, but I wonder why so much of what I learnt there had hate built into it, and I, gentle reader, studied nothing more flammable than English literature – Jane Austen and EM Forster – not politics, not revolutionary theory, not one of the monolithic and now militant religions, not how this one stole my country, and that one stole my rights.

It's university – that time of education into resentment, when the mind and heart should be enlarged, but when both more frequently contract and harden – which I found missing from Shagufta Yaqub's article on Asif Hanif, the Tel-Aviv bomber, published in this newspaper's Faith and Reason column last week. What Shagufta Yaqub wanted us to understand was that Asif Hanif was no schizoid member of a fanatic sect, but a person of a meditative not to say mystical temperament, "inclined to gentleness". Quite different, in other words, from what we imagine, and not that dastardly and blood-thirsty coward – never the right word, coward – our politicians take every suicide-bomber to be. For which correction to our laziest of assumptions, we owe Shagufta Yaqub, who knew Asif Hanif, a great debt.

But the question of how Asif Hanif progressed from gentleness to carnage, blowing up people he did not know, had never met and who personally had done him and intended him no harm, is never answered, and perhaps never can be answered except by a Shakespeare or a Dostoevesky. As Shagufta Yaqub's account stands – that her friend was simply" reacting in an outrageous way to an outrageous situation" – it is bereft of all the information that matters, like the story of Macbeth told without Acts Two, Three and Four, and without most of Acts One and Five come to that. No witches, no ambition, no wife; just a good brave soldier who feels he must kill a king, and then a friend, and then a rival's pretty ones.

No tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. No consciousness of great wrong. No depletion of spirits. Only reaction to an "outrageous situation", as though a reaction is without any moral before and after.

Here is not the place to rehearse the rights and wrongs of that "outrageous situation". The Israeli occupation is undoubtedly an outrage, born of outrage. Born indeed of several outrages. If we are to talk of gentleness and meditation, then we ought, in the spirit of both, to see that all parties to the occupation have suffered cruelly, that it is a fact of history and flux, a consequence of previous decisions and events, an unfolding tragedy with past and future, not merely a fixture of this or that person's outrage. A cause grows stale that forgets its own evolution in contrariety and conflict, and stales the minds of those who embrace it. Here is what is lacking in this story of a gentle mystic's transformation into murderer: the process whereby it is dinned into his gentle and impressionable soul that there is good and evil in the world, and that the good is all on his side, and the evil all on someone else's.

This is by no means a failure of imagination typical only of one side. I have encountered them in settlements too, holy men and mystics who strain their ears to hear the word of God, then bloody their hands in His name. A little less mysticism all round, one feels, would make for a little more humanity.

As for Asif Hanif, destabilised by certainty, it only needed university to do the rest. First fret the unsteady heart, then steel it round with ideology. Thus, by our own raging rhetoric, do we prepare the sensitive for the education that will finally barbarise them into killers – careless of their own lives and the lives of others. This was Asif Hanif's tragedy.

Watching the sun go down off Tenerife, a young woman, terribly wasted, in a wheelchair, her parents unobtrusively leaving her to have the moment to herself. Just her, the ocean and the dying sun. Such exquisite consideration. And not, I'd guess, a degree, diploma or a cause between them.

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