LEADING ARTICLE : Understanding how we failed to make them safe

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The Independent Online
You must have a jumble of feelings at the end of this most awful week. We go round and round, over and over, picking it up and putting it down again. We are drawn to it, need to know the dreadful reality of it: what happened in that gym that morning. And yet we are repelled by it, our interest an intrusion upon a sorrow so profound that it can only be private.

We want to know, don't we, how we let them down, those tiny children. Yet we know, we tell ourselves, "We didn't do it, he did." We feel that a terrible judgement upon us, our society, is inescapable when one of our members - for that is what Hamilton was - could commit such a crime. We must be a godless world, a pitiless place that such an arbitrary and cruel act could be possible. It was surely a reflection of a society that itself is deranged, unhinged, twisted. And yet we know, we tell ourselves, "We didn't do it, he did." He was an oddity, an aberration, someone so chaotic and evil that there could be no accounting for him and against which all planning is useless.

So we go back, and round, and back again. It is difficult to know even where to begin to explain it all, to understand. Yet attempt to understand we must, to make sure we do not smother the terror beneath a river of words, or comfort ourselves with hasty actions or anaesthetise ourselves with hollow rituals. We must try to understand it, knowing that we will never be able to fully explain it. But we must try, because without that effort of understanding we might as well accept defeat in the face of the flood of random risks and uncertainties of modern life. That is too bleak a prospect.

Start with that picture of Class P1 and their proud teacher, Gwenne Mayor, taken at the start of the school year. Hopeful, excited, curious, shy, bright, sweet, those children were above all trusting. They were trusting of their teacher and their parents, the adults around them and the world into which they had been brought.

And because they were so trusting, it is difficult for any adult to see that picture and not feel dismay, shame even, that we did not do better for them, that we did not make them safe. Of course we did not create Hamilton. As far as we know he never did anything so grave that any one person might have taken action to prevent Wednesday's killings. Like those other killers who seem to have passed beyond the boundaries of morality - Yigal Amir, Fred West and Timothy McVeigh - Thomas Hamilton's motives and values seem warped and distorted beyond recognition.

And yet the events at Dunblane come from somewhere. Hamilton emerged from the backdrop against which he acted. Hamilton's story, like the story of so much violence in our society, is a tale of men and weapons, sex and repression, power and revenge. The culture that encircled that school is one of incessant violence. Violence in the name of art, entertainment and news washes over us. Read it in Irvine Welsh, watch it in the film Seven, hear about it on television true-life crime programmes, play it out on video consoles, feel the thrill of becoming an assassin in arcades up and down the land. It's not just out there in culture; it's in families and homes, and almost certainly was in Hamilton's own contorted home. The connection cannot be simple or singular. The thread of violence that runs through society starts and ends in many places. But which of us would be so confident that we could deny that Thomas Hamilton was at some point woven into it inextricably?

We live in a disconnected culture. He was a loner, they say, as if this is an odd thing in our age. In our atomised society, intimacy is shunned and strangers are everywhere. We enjoy a culture that prizes independence and choice; yet that also produces some of its most troubling problems. Lone parents are the controversial objects of social policy. Single young men are the feared perpetrators of much violence. Loners like Hamilton are where benign singleness festers and turns poisonous, where being alone creates the space in which paranoia flourishes to burst out in violence.

The backdrop from which Thomas Hamilton emerged is complex. Tracing the connections between it and his actions last Wednesday is not simple. But there are connections and there will be lessons that we should ponder to make our society stronger, better able to take responsibility for itself.

That understanding would be easier if the lesson were simple, delivered clearly. But we now have no institutions, no moral leaders, who are unquestionably able to play that role for us.

The church has played a creditable part. It does at times of national mourning. But its moral leadership does not extend beyond the immediate provision of spiritual sustenance. The professionals - psychiatrists, social workers, psychologists, geneticists - peddle their particular explanations, but none of them match the scale of what has happened.

Politicians have done better than we might have feared. The silence and respect in the House of Common, the dignity of Forsyth and Robertson, Major and Blair acting together, have spoken well of politics. We will look to politics for practicalities: the tougher policies we obviously need to control powerful handguns. But none of us seriously thinks that politicians will help to unpick the meaning of what has happened.

So where do we turn? To ourselves and our own civic culture. For that is what Dunblane stands for: decent, ordered, calm, civil, still a community in a society that has so few. That is what the school itself stands for: a place of refuge and togetherness, solidarity and hope, the cradle of civic virtue in a fragmenting society. Through this week, the teachers of that school, led by its headmaster, have provided the most profound examples of civic heroism, laying down their lives for the sake of their charges. And so too in remembering the tiny victims of Dunblane, we should engage in our own quiet and civic acts of remembrance this weekend by observing a quiet on Sunday. Beyond that, through memorials, planting trees, providing benches, through small and large acts, we can remember the dead.

The events in Dunblane did not come from nowhere. They emerged from a backdrop. If we look hard enough, we will all find ourselves upon that backdrop. That must be the starting point for our understanding, and also the most fitting place to make our remembrance.