Making sense of Dunblane

Wednesday's killings at Dunblane Primary School have numbed the nation. To help us to understand the tragedy, seven writers speak of grief, God, evil, science, guilt,anger, children's minds and a killer's motives
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The Independent Online
THE PSYCHIATRIST

The wanton murder of 16 children horrified and shocked me as it has horrified and shocked everyone in Britain. As we watched the television report my wife, my daughter and myself were all in tears. It is the closeness to ourselves that appals us. Those children might have been ours; in my case, my grandchildren.

Our strongest emotions are always parochial. I was distressed, but I did not weep for the thousands of children slaughtered in Rwanda, nor for the Muslims of Bosnia, nor for the Kurds. Horrors have to be close at hand to make their full impact. If it were not so, we should spend our lives in tears.

The killing of young children is particularly shocking because it transgresses the biologically based imperative which demands that the very young should be cherished and protected. Our natural response to the photograph of Class P1 of Dunblane Primary is to smile back at those lovely, cheerful faces and say "how sweet!"

We feel in our bones that killing children is against human nature; one of the ultimate expressions of human wickedness. This is why, throughout history, minority pariah groups are accused of the ritual murder of children, along with incest and devil-worship. This was as true of Christians under the Roman Empire as it was of witches and Jews in medieval Europe.

But Thomas Hamilton belonged to no group, so far as we yet know. Like most mass murderers he was a loner. According to those who have especially studied such murderers, they are usually introspective, withdrawn and solitary. Hamilton appears to have been a frustrated homosexual paedophile. Those who are deprived of the self-esteem that a normal, happy love relationship provides, have to find other ways of achieving some sense of their own importance. In the case of serial killers a new murder often follows upon some injury to self-esteem, and may briefly give the killer a sense of being powerful.

We shall never know what went on in the mind of Thomas Hamilton. He might have been killing children who tempted him, or revenging himself upon a society that had rejected him. For those dreadful minutes the whole class was at his mercy, and he was briefly omnipotent. Flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo. "If I can't move the gods, I'll stir up hell."

I think we need more research into personalities of those who are fascinated by guns and who want to possess them. Shooting, whether with rifles or handguns, is a legitimate pastime exercising particular skills possessed by perfectly normal people. But we ought to scrutinise more closely those who apply for gun licences. In some cases, owning a gun is part of a sadomasochistic fantasy. The authorities succeeded in barring Hamilton from working with children. If only they had been able to forbid him access to firearms.

ANTHONY STORR

The writer's forthcoming book `Feat of Clay: a study of gurus' (HarperCollins) will be published in June.

THE THEOLOGIAN

When Jesus heard of the death of his friend Lazarus, he wept. He burst into tears - even though he knew that he was "the resurrection and the life", even though he promptly went and called Lazarus back from the dead. Jesus wept. So we should weep, for the children of Dunblane, and those who mourn them. Mourning should be the first religious response to death.

The trouble is that mourning and sadness are nearly unbearable emotions. It is far easier to talk, to blame, to be angry, to explain, to rationalise. To talk about anything that protects us from the pain of death. But, as the theologian John Bowker puts it, "people who talk at grief, instead of holding hands with grief, are a menace. Words come later, but only after tears".

I do not understand what, in God's name, God thinks is going on. Is God up to the job ? I do not understand the meaning of evil. I cannot justify the ways of God. In fact, writing this, I find I am angry. I am angry with Thomas Hamilton - either way, whether he was in control of himself or not. I am angry about the gun laws; about the failure of expensive systems to identify and control Hamilton, about society; I am angry with the mass media; I am angry with me, because I am - here, now - making some money out of this; and I am angry with God.

I am very angry with God. And if I am angry with God, how much more angry must the people of Dunblane be - or will be when the weight of their grief has abated enough for them to feel such a secondary and unimportant emotion compared with love and loss and shock and sorrow.

I know all the pious platitudes - about resurrection, and presence, and abiding love; about a God who loves life and has finally conquered the last enemy, death. I believe them profoundly - but it is not my five-year- old who has died and it would be impertinent to say, "nothing is wasted, five years is better than no years; God will receive your child's soul and the angels will be cheered up by a sudden influx of noisy children; God can and will cope with your anger; we do not, know why, but we do know that the divine providence can use even this horror-show for good".

I know rationally that God works on a scale that we cannot even imagine and has to offer humans freedoms that can be abused, but now is not the moment to say these sorts of things. It is the moment to say this: in all the noise that our inadequate emotions are generating, God, in Christ, is silently weeping for these deaths and is willing to stay there until it is the time for words.

As well as theology there is prayer. I pray that the noise of a properly outraged world does not come between those who mourn and the God who weeps with them.

SARA MAITLAND

The writer's most recent book is `A Big Enough God' (Cassells).

THE POLITICIAN

There will not be a single person in this country who will not have wakened this morning hoping beyond hope that yesterday had been just a very bad dream. So there will be nobody who will not experience huge sadness and dismay in realising that it did all happen.

You don't need to have lived in the town of Dunblane or to have seen three children go through Dunblane Primary School to share the grief and the horror and the sheer desolation our town feels today. You just have to be a fellow human being.

It was that very worst of all possible nightmares that any parent can think of - and for it to happen to so many of the littlest and the most innocent makes the tragedy one of unspeakable misery.

I have to say that Dunblane today is worse than yesterday and tomorrow will probably be worse still - as the enormity of the massacre comes home in the shape of real children gone, real families afflicted and a whole community scarred and tortured.

I want to join the tributes to the Headmaster Ron Taylor whose composure and self-control in the face of the most traumatic events was an inspiration. To act with speed and calmness as your tiny pupils die in your arms cannot be described as ordinary professionalism. It was heroism. The staff of the school also deserve great praise and thanks.

I thank the emergency services, the police, the ambulance staffs and the medical teams from a supremely dedicated Health Service which acted with superlative dedication and skill, even when their own emotions were tested to the limit. And we must be so grateful for the caring services of the local councils, the church leaders, and a whole community which poured in its help.

Naturally there will be questions to be asked and a nation, never mind a local community, needing answers, but the worst service we could do to these infant victims is to rush to instant judgement.

Of course, those of us who met and distrusted Thomas Hamilton - and I myself argued with him in my own home - will ask ourselves till the grave if we did enough. But in truth there was no inkling, expect with hindsight, to guide us to his final act of wantonness.

And of course we will expect a thorough examination, and action on, the present gun laws which enabled such a man to own such a lethal armoury.

And school security will need looking at. But we should not pretend to ourselves that even a fortress would keep an armed, crazed, suicidal killer at bay.

This, however, is not for today. Today, the nation stands beside, and with, a community devastated by a unique and terrible act of evil. We here, and all of us who would root out the sickness which spawned such an awful act, stand together in mourning and sympathy with those whose loss today is beyond repair.

GEORGE ROBERTSON MP

The writer is Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland.

THE HEADTEACHER

We have a stable, secure, emotionally healthy and open environment where pupils feel safe and parents know their children are cared for. Just like Dunblane. Here, life for our children goes on as normal. Unlike Dunblane. The children have been preparing cards for Mothering Sunday. We have had a special delivery of daffodils for the younger ones to take home to their mothers.

For the young children the tragedy is another news item. It is difficult for them to comprehend. Some know what has happened: they have watched it on the news at home and heard their older brothers and sisters talking about it. But there has been little comment in school. The children have internalised what they have heard and are turning it over in their minds. One child said: "It couldn't happen here, because you love us all too much."

It will all come out gradually over the next few days. We will deal sensitively with what the children say and we will gently reassure them. To discuss what has happened requires an atmosphere in which the relationship between the teacher and the child is right. An assembly with 300 children is not a safe enough environment. Talking about what has happened in that situation would leave them confused. Assembly mixes different age groups and each needs to be treated in a suitable way.

The parents and the adults in the school community need support now. They cannot believe the news. The enormity of it, the cold facts. Every parent in the school wants to talk; they want to empathise as grandparents, as staff, as mothers, as fathers. They are stunned. Parents were saying how dreadful it was. A lot of them are emotionally moved. They are thinking that it could have been our children.

As a headteacher, I have spoken to staff and said we must give the children time to talk it if they want to. We will do something to mark what has happened. Perhaps we will plant some shrubs or send a book to the Dunblane children for their library. We'll decide with the children next week when we have got over the immediate shock.

I have never in my career had to deal with a tragedy. There are many schools where children have died or there have been accidents. I have dealt with many crisis situations, but what happened in Dunblane makes me wonder how I would cope, because there aren't any guidelines. You just have to draw on the lesser experiences that you have had.

In our prayers today our thoughts will be with the children, their families, the school community. We will find a way to express our grief, our sympathy, from one school to another. There will be no bolting of doors, no building of walls, no tightening of defences. It was a single tragic incident.

CHRIS TAYLOR

The writer is headteacher of The Hills Lower School, Bedford.

THE COMMENTATOR

Coming downstairs in the morning, trying to find a way to think about the killings, I met a pointed gun. It was a toy pirate gun and the person on the other end of it, my son, is six. But it seemed a bad morning to be playing with guns. So I tried to tell him, to explain what had happened.

The telling was banal and easy. But explaining was impossible. ``Bad stuff happens.'' What can you say? The slaughter of these bright-looking children, ranged in a school photo so many of us have on the mantelpiece, silences every ``we can find an answer'' instinct. It is a blankness, a nothing.

And there is no answer. Inquiries, psychologists, newspaper moralists, politicians, commentators, social scientists, religious leaders, philosophers ... huddled before the camera-confessor, none sounds at all convincing. Thomas Hamilton came into that school like a natural disaster, a bolt of lightning - like one of those inexplicable events that people still call ``an act of God''. (Strange God they must have.)

I'm not saying that we should have no public debate about the effect of casual violence in our film and television culture. Or about the unease of the modern male, or gun licences, or school security. These are respectable things to think about, now or at any time. There will be no more toy guns bought by this father. But as the great babble of analysis, commentary and argument flows through the media, and through millions of private conversations, it just seems so feeble - so small.

Of course, we are children of the Enlightenment. Science, with its promise to understand the world and, by understanding, to control it, is our dominant religion. Because of that, when confronted by an event beyond such understanding or control we scrabble frantically around for new answers and better policies, trying to bind raw life with regulations.

At the very edges, some good may be done. But police inquiries and the parliamentary statements will not stop people driving themselves mad. They will not protect the rest of us. They are just the after-disaster ritual of Enlightenment man. This is fine, just so long as it doesn't fool anyone into thinking that life can be controlled. For me, there is nothing in religion that helps either, not a word or ancient promise that offers the slightest hiding place from the bleakness of that school morning, and the death-shadow it casts for scores of people and scores of years.

But science worship, with its bogus promise of safety, is no better. These days, we cut out the big mysteries from public life, limiting our acknowledgement of chance and death in a way that earlier societies would have found bizarre. They knew that bad stuff happens and that we are never free from fear. Politicians and others have said decent and true things. But none of it touches the mystery. Really, one might as well paint one's face with blood and cry at the stars. ANDREW MARR

The writer is the Independent's chief political commentator.

THE POET

As father of a nine-year-old son and a five-year-old daughter, it is almost too easy to empathise with the grief of parents in Dunblane. Too easy because it hasn't happened to us, but to them, and even public shows of sorrow contain their secrets and special intimacy. It is almost impossible to understand. A middle-aged man enters a school carrying four guns, shoots children and teachers in their gymnasium, and then shoots himself. Like all real narratives of horror, it comes with the shock of the improbable. In this case it seems a totally unpredictable act of vengeance against the killer's own childhood, against the whole of his life, for which his unimaginable psychopathology demanded victims in the form of those whom he used to be like, before innocence became a dirty idea for him, or one on which he must exact a terrible revenge.

Speculate as much as we will, though, so demented, so cruel a deed is resistant to certainty as to its cause. Those of us who live in small Scottish towns, most of them only marginally affronted by the worst tendencies of violent times, must feel that our complacencies have been rocked by the apparently random and nightmarish decision of a man who allowed himself, or was permitted, to succumb to the ruthlessness of life. It is the terrorism not of politics or ideology, but of the psyche and of the flesh. It is a man's unimaginable interior life made public in a manner which words cannot bear to describe.

Momentarily, the deed steps outside the scrutiny of the ethical mind; it walks away from reason, or reason from it. Worse than the parental nightmare of the parked car close by the playground, or the car cruising on one's own street, this is a dire, hideous blow to an entire community of children and their families.

Sincere as our lamentations might be, however, there is an appalling sense of helplessness. This morning, when I passed the primary school which my children attend, the empty playground was a bleak and wintry footnote to the newspaper I'd been reading before I left my house. Dunblane, or anywhere else in Scotland, ought not to be known for such a crime; and now it is. No one could have expected such a thing to happen here, but it has, and sorrow is not strong enough a word. It has already become too pervasive, and cultural; in just a single day it has become an icon of the horror and anguish from which, it seems, no one can be protected.

DOUGLAS DUNN

The writer is editor of `The Faber Book of 20th Century Scottish Poetry'.

THE SCIENTIST

Science cannot offer false comfort. To be true to itself it has to accept the legacy of the bullet: a damaged body and its life extinguished. Science cannot hold out the hope that a bullet opens the gates of heaven. For science, a bullet terminates; it releases nothing but blood from its target and anguish from those left behind.

All science can do, in so far as it can do anything, is to offer true comfort. For those bereaved there is but a grain to offer: the destruction wrought by a bullet may be immediate. The brain may be traumatised and effectively inactive before it has time to respond to pain or even terror. A bullet offers the prospect of instant death, with the pain transformed and transferred to those who grieve their loss.

For those who suffer but survive the impact of the bullet, science has more to offer. Through medicine it can help to rebuild bodies, to snatch them back from the brink of death's abyss. Through medicine, science can alleviate pain, give the body the time it desperately needs to rebuild itself. Medicine, building on science, can coax a life nearly lost back into fulfilment and a mind back into happiness. Science, through surgery and pharmaceuticals, can even repair what nature left alone cannot, and through rational care may even heal the invisible emotional scars that can blight a life as thoroughly as manifest injury.

Science will learn a little about human nature from those who observe Dunblane in shock and chart its recovery. That will help when the next thunderbolt is released by a madman, for the success in achieving human psychological and bodily regeneration depend on knowledge obtained in this dreadful and wickedly expensive manner.

We extreme scientists, who believe that this glorious world is but a mechanism that can be untangled under our careful scrutiny, will see Dunblane as a rationalisable but unpredictable event wrought by a psychologically disturbed complex animal, a human being. We see life as a happy accident of unguided, unconscious, and undirected evolution. We see the so-called free will that led the killer to kill as the outcome of evolution, the outcome of a long history of surviving, being adaptable, and striving for life. We see bodies as machines: machines that science can elucidate, sustain, entertain, and develop.

But all this clarity of vision, and the provision of true comfort that it inspires, does not mean that we are inhumanly unresponsive to the termination of the barely formulated aspirations of the young victims or the grief of those around them. Life is a unique opportunity for enjoying the pleasures of consciousness: to thwart this opportunity, particularly when it is barely tasted, is the apotheosis of evil.

PETER ATKINS

The writer's most recent book is `Creation Revisited' (Penguin).

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