It seems to me that my whole life has been smattered, in a way, with terrorists. As family legend would have it, my great-great grandfather was a Fenian, an predecessor of the Irish Republican Army, who was deported to Australia from whence he escaped to New York. In my own lifetime, my grandparents, who were averagely well-to-do in their neighbourhood in Flushing in the 1970s, fell victim to a scam whereby an Irish priest approached them for funds for an “orphanage” in Ireland – they gave him $1,000. (Now keep in mind that $8,000 in the 1970s would buy you a house in the Irish Republic – that gives you an idea of the investment). It turned out later that the priest was a gunrunner for the modern IRA. As a teenager, working in New England one summer, I was approached by my boss, who had hired me because he professed a liking for the Irish. “Hey, why don’t you take a 10 minute break (great!), and while you’re at it, have a look at these”, he said, as he casually shoved a whole load of NorAid pamphlets into my hands. I looked at him directly and told him that wasn’t the way forward for Northern Ireland as far as I was concerned (I have always, and will always be, a believer in pacifism), and for us not to mention it again. Closer to home, and now in my early 20s, I hitchhiked a lift from what seemed like a nice, if somewhat reserved farmer in his 40s. We got chatting, as a lot of Irish people did then, about the situation in the North, and then he said: “So what do you think of the IRA?” Without a second thought, I said “Well, I understand where they are coming from, but in my opinion, they are a bunch of murdering b**tards”. He slowly turned his face to me (well, as slow as one can without crashing – in my memory it is still one of those slow-mo moments in one’s life) and said: “I was in the IRA”. Gulp. Then, probably sensing how panic-stricken I was, he kindly said “But I agree with you, and that is why I renounced it years ago. Ultimately, it seemed futile”.
The most pertinent encounter I had with a real-life terrorist was not to come long after that. Living in Dublin in the early 1990s, I was going through a rather rough patch workwise, so I signed up for what was known as a FAS (growth) course learning how to archive historical artefacts at the Irish Jewish Museum. In truth, we were a very strange bunch of people thrown together; I remember there being an artist who drew everything with a ruler; then a guy who was definitely in the closet still; gorgeous Ger, who was one of the supervisors; a rather rakish older Scottish man who for the purposes of this blog I will call Alan Brierley; and myself, a university drop-out who knew what she wanted to do with her life, but didn’t quite have the courage to pursue it at that time. To be honest, I don’t remember a huge amount of archiving going on; but I do remember a lot of sitting around, drinking coffee and changing the world one conversation at a time.
Then one day, we had to actually go and learn how to archive at the National Library (this was way before the internet, Google, or God forbid – Wikipedia), and for some reason Alan couldn’t come with us. Now at this point, I had dismissed Alan as a fecking eejit, the type of man who never grows up, and who even in his forties was prone to getting into scrapes, normally as a result of overdrinking, oversmoking, and overcarousing (to the apparent chagrin of his long-suffering girlfriend Mary). He was also one of these people who needles you, and tries to get under your skin – sometimes successfully, but always annoyingly – so at this point, I really didn’t give much credence to anything he said. However, just before setting off on our daytrip, he mysteriously pulled me aside, and told me to look up a certain date in a certain newspaper, and that I would find out exactly how he came to be in Dublin. Slightly sceptical, but with my curiousity piqued, I did. And so Alan’s story unravelled.
There had been no doubt in my mind that Alan was a highly intelligent man, although I sensed that intelligence was hugely frustrated. What I didn’t know is that Alan was a Scottish Nationalist terrorist, and part of a plot to bomb the Queen that had gone hugely awry. (Which if you knew him, wasn’t that surprising). The newspaper I looked at said under a picture of him “Wanted in the UK”. So when I got back to the museum, Alan told me his story himself. After he and his colleagues failed in their attempt to blow up the Queen, he fled to Dublin. But he knew in order not to be extradited back to the UK mainland, he needed to have his passport taken away from him. So he set out to get arrested. The easiest way was through shoplifting, and so he headed down to Dunnes Stores in the Ilac Centre. Now, what I could have told him (because in a strange twist of fate, I had just worked there before coming to the museum) is that the security was pretty lax in that shop at that time – on average, about £3,000 worth of goods were taken every day from there at the time. So Alan walked past the security guards with his stolen goods for a whole hour before being arrested – in fact, if I remember correctly, he had to go up to them, tell them he was stealing from the store before they took him to the Gardai!! Finally, he had his passport taken away from him, and was spending the rest of his days in exile. Which meant, according to some Scottish Nationalist newspapers he showed me, that he was “operating from Ireland”. Though if truth be told, I would hazard a guess and say that the only thing he operated with any regularity was the door into the local pub.
Alan came to mind, because only last year, I happened to pick up a copy of the Metro, and saw that his son (who I remember meeting as a young teenager) had been jailed for threatening a prominent Scottish politician. Apparently Alan is now in jail in Ireland, after a failed attempt to join the IRA, and other misdemeanours.
The thing about all of this is: Terrorists are not what the government or the media would have us believe. As much as there are different types of people, I would say there are different types of terrorists. Maybe what unites them is their belief in an ideology, a frustration and/or an inability to work within a system, especially if that system seems unfairly pitted in favour of a ruling class. I believe Chris Morris came closest to identifying some of the hapless make-up of the modern terrorist in Four Lions; the propagandizing, the brainwashing, the ultimately futile nature of it all. No matter what the justification, it is never right to consciously plan to kill and maim; so people who have reached that point mentally and emotionally where they can justify it must be challenged, yes – but possibly a more effective solution would be to challenge it with as much kindness as we in the rest of society can muster.