Yesterday two young men brutally murdered an off-duty British soldier, Drummer Lee Rigby, on the streets of Woolwich, London. It seems they deliberately ran him down with their car while he was walking quietly along the pavement, and then leapt out and butchered him with kitchen knives and a machete, cutting his head off. A truly horrific scene, enacted in full view of dozens of passers-by on an ordinary London street.
What happened next was even more astonishing. Instead of attempting to escape, the two murderers wandered up and down, boasting about what they had done. Some of the passers-by were truly heroic. In full view of the killers, several women went up to the victim, trying to help. One woman, Ingrid Loyau-Kennet, a mother and scout leader from Cornwall, got off the bus on which she was travelling and ran to the soldier, hoping to use her first aid skills. When she realised he was dead she went up to the killer and started to talk to him. We know this because another witness stood behind her, videoing the conversation on his mobile phone.
It is a truly extraordinary scene, broadcast by Channel 4 News and sure to be watched by millions on Youtube. Here is the murderer, a young black man six feet tall, both hands red with his victim’s blood, brandishing the murder weapon, a blood-stained machete, and yelling out his wild justifications for this horrible act. And there right in front of him is this woman, unafraid, listening to all this and talking to him in an attempt, so she says, to calm him down and prevent him from killing anyone else. With a single sweep of the machete he could have murdered her too. If anyone ever deserved a medal, this lady does.
Would you have dared do that? Would I? How can any of us know what we would do in a situation like that, until it happens? And to most of us, thank goodness, it never will.
But as this extraordinary conversation is being videoed, another actor appears on the screen. Not an important person, quite the reverse. We see a little old lady pulling a shopping trolley. She only appears for a second, and then she is gone – many viewers probably didn’t notice her at all. But during that brief second, she comes within a few inches of this bloodstained, axe-wielding thug.
Does she pay him any attention? Not as far as we can see, no. She appears to be simply making her way home along the pavement, pulling her shopping trolley, as she has done thousands of times before. Sometimes, however, there are problems. Today, unfortunately she finds an axe-wielding young murderer blocking her way, steeped in gore up to his elbows, shouting at a woman.
The young are so inconsiderate, aren’t they? Always getting in the way or expecting you to wait or walk round them. Well, this little old lady’s had enough. There’s already been all this trouble with a car smashing into a tree and a headless body lying in the road. She’s sick and tired of it all. So she pushes past the axe murderer, has her brief two seconds of fame, and then carries on home.
I may be doing her an injustice, of course. This is just speculation based on two seconds of her life. But I’m not suggesting she did anything wrong. Hers was just a perfectly human reaction to a situation that, after all, had nothing to do with her. She didn’t know what to do, so she just went home. Quite normal, quite human, quite understandable.
To look at it from another way, consider this famous poem – Musee des Beaux Arts, by W.H. Auden. In this poem, too, something quite extraordinary happens. A young man – Icarus – has made some wings, and he tries to fly. Unfortunately, he flies too near the sun, which melts the wax on his wings, so he falls into the sea and drowns.
Please don’t get me wrong – I’m not for a moment suggesting that this disgusting murder is in any way morally equivalent to the noble attempt to fly. But they do have one thing in common, especially in this poem – they are extraordinary, unusual events, things that definitely don’t happen every day. Auden’s poem is based on a painting by Breughel which illustrates this. In the background, Icarus is plunging to his death in the sea – a truly dramatic event. But on the cliffs in the foreground is another man – a farmer ploughing his fields. Does he look up, stop ploughing, and gaze at this amazing sight – a young man in flames, falling out of the sky? No. A shepherd does, but not him.He just carries on ploughing, living his normal life.
Just like that little old lady in London yesterday, really. Not the most heroic reaction, but perfectly normal, perfectly human, quite understandable.
I wonder what I would do? Or you?
Musee des Beaux Arts
W. H. Auden
About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
Tim’s books: http://www.timvicary.com
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