Friday, March 17, 2006

The F word

This article was commissioned for the Sunday Times News Review, however, because it wasn't possible to get an interview with Rev. Julie Nicholson ( quite understandably) the piece has been put on hold, and so I reproduce it here on this website with the permission of the editor.

THE F-WORD

''I write this exactly eight months since 7th July 2005 when a nineteen year old man detonated his bomb on my train, feet away from me, killing 26 fellow-passengers, injuring scores more. It is three years, eight months since 16th July 2002, when I was attacked by another young man; an itinerant stranger who broke into my flat and raped me, beat me and left me for dead. In November last year, I wrote my story, ‘Rachel’s Story’ in this newspaper, and I touched on the issue of forgiveness. As the daughter of a vicar, and an ex Theology student, people often asked me the F-word question: Can you forgive? I struggled to answer that question then, and I struggle still.

This week, the Rev. Julie Nicholson, a parish priest from Bristol, whose daughter Jenny was killed in the Edgware Road bomb attack by Mohammed Siddique Khan, spoke out about her rage, and how she could not forgive Jenny’s killer.

‘Forgiving another human being for violating your child is almost beyond human capabilities. It is very difficult for me to stand behind an altar and celebrate the Eucharist and lead people in words of peace and reconciliation and forgiveness when I feel very far from that myself’. She has left parish work and she has moved to a community youth project involving the arts, a subject that was close to her daughter’s heart. She remains an ordained priest


Julie is both a minister to a congregation, and a mother of a murdered child. She is a witness to the at times unbearable love and grief of being fully human. How many of us could stand eight months later at an altar and speak of peace and reconciliation?

I remain in regular contact with other survivors from the bombed Piccadilly line train. We have talked about our feelings towards the bombers of last July. I have not yet met a survivor who says they feel anger towards the bombers. Why not?

‘I t was mass-murder, not martyrdom’, says Richard, who was badly injured when the explosion hurled him out of the train. ‘But what is the point of vengeance? It’s easier not to have resentment towards them, because they’re dead. There’s no court case, no justice process. I don’t subscribe to the idea that the bombers were victims. But if every time I feel tinnitus or look at my horrible scar I felt anger, it would hurt me. That would be no kind of life.’

Jane, another Kings Cross survivor points out, ‘Sometimes, it is very powerful to choose not to forgive.’ She describes herself as, ‘more accepting as forgiving’. ‘It can be strengthening – to say, no, you have gone too far to be forgiven. Rather than be forced to act out a position you don’t believe in - if you don’t believe it, don’t do it. You have to be true to yourself, deal with things in your way. I think what Julie is telling us is that she could not preach forgiveness anymore, which I can totally understand. It’s too early. She has suffered the worst thing in the world. And anyway, I don’t think you can forgive someone if they do not want your forgiveness’

Kirsty, a Labour voter who took two months off work with post-traumatic stress symptoms after the attacks is angry with the Prime Minister, not the bombers. ‘He was democratically elected to run this country for the good, and what he is doing is not good for this country or the people. He has betrayed my trust. I was angry with him before I was blown up – now I have become a first hand victim of his actions - not just an onlooker. When you become collateral damage’ yourself it is slightly more personal!’

She still struggles to comprehend the bombers’ actions. ‘Forgiveness is self-preservation; if I can’t forgive it will destroy me. For me, forgiveness means I need to understand first.’

Like Kirsty, I too was desperate to understand why these young men had bombed us. Four months after the bombings fellow-passenger Richard passed on details of a charitable organisation called The Forgiveness Project to me. A charitable organisation – with no political or religious affiliations – that works for conflict resolution and restorative practices, I visited the website (http://www.theforgivenessproject.com/) and found a collection of inspiring personal testimonies of people discussing forgiveness after terrible events. I was captivated by the story of Khaled al-Berry, an ex Islamist radical who became a writer. For the first time, I was able to get an insight into the mind of a young man contemplating a ‘martyrdom operation’. A man who had stepped back from the brink only when he broke from the unquestionning revolutionary ideaology and found the space to question it, to think for himself. Understanding his story gave me hope. Suddenly, the bombers became human, the hate and anger faltered.

I recognise my own experience when Kirsty talks of how forgiveness came in stages. ‘Numbness at first, then a big awakening, when I saw Khan’s video. The Yorkshire accent – it became real, he deliberately wanted to kill and maim. Then anger – how could he say we deserved to die for supporting the war – when I was against it, when millions of us don’t support it? I knew the next stage was that I had to let go of the anger and forgive, or it would eat me alive. So that is why I have tried so desperately to understand – reading, researching, devouring the media – trying to understand suicide bombing and what was the bombers’ cause. But it is too extreme; I cannot comprehend how I could end up in such a place. These were perfectly intelligent young men – not nutcases, not outcasts – normal people.’

People may be shocked that a survivor has spent so much time trying to understand and find out more about the men who attacked us. Is this empathising with terrorists?

Kirsty is clear on this. ‘Understanding doesn’t mean you sympathise with them, it doesn’t mean that you think that it is justifiable – it just means that you have accepted it, and you don’t feel any anger towards them, or want revenge. Revenge is the easy way out, but it doesn’t do the vengeful person any good. Revenge just perpetuates a cycle. I don’t want revenge. I want healing.’

It can be harder to live with rankling injustice than it is to live with the wound caused by the attacks themselves: in this respect I am fortunate. My rapist was sentenced to 15 years in 2004 so he is no longer my problem, and as for the bomber who detonated his bomb in my carriage; he is dead, so he is no longer my problem either.

For me forgiveness is about moving through the storm of pain and outrage, holding onto my essential self, which was there before the devastating event. It’s hard to let go of the desire for revenge: anger became my sole driver in the months after the first attack.
But to be trapped in a state of permanent rage hurts me. I hold what has happened to me, the rape, the bomb, and I try to live through it. I do not want to live a life defined entirely by an attack on me.

Forgiveness is a choice, and a gift I make to myself, to live freely in the light, rather than to be trapped in a hell of hatred and vengefulness. It has little to do with the perpetrators of the crimes; it is for me, not them that I choose to do this. It is how I stay sane.

When I cannot go any further, I lean on others; my partner, my family, my friends and fellow passengers. I have found that the only way to get past hate and cruelty is to look for where there is still love. I have put up walls to survive in the past; I have used my anger like armour. I could not bear to be so vulnerable in the months after the rape, so I did what I could to protect my devastated self. It took time to forgive myself for being so painfully human. But I found that my vulnerability was my strength. I am human: and I live amongst humans in an imperfect world. The only world that we know.

A world where, yes, there is horrifying pain and injustice and cruelty, but also, still beauty and kindness and hope. Wounds take time to heal, and eight months is such a little time. I do not forgive in the Christian sense of the word. I do not exonerate. I move past, I let go, I walk through this and I walk on, leaving the bomber and the rapist and the anger behind me. It is the hardest thing I have ever done.''
© Rachel North 2006.

UPDATE: Here are my fellow passengers on the subject of forgiving the 7 uly bombers. Their words are well worth reading.
Yorkshire Lass, Holly Finch, Steve, and Steve's thoughtful update

7 Comments:

Blogger Davide Simonetti said...

Excellent article Rachel, very thought provoking. Its a pity the Sunday Times News Review are unable to print it at the moment. I hope they do at some point.

March 17, 2006 2:09 pm  
Blogger steve said...

Thank you for writing this Rachel. It's always good to read different approaches /trails of thought. If you've read my latest post you will know I'm struggling with the subject. I think while I can't forgive the act of murder I can forgive the murderer. By forgive I mean accept/leave behind/file away under horrible, maybe not forgive in the true sense of the word.

These people were human after all, I get annoyed with people who say they were "mad bastards". They were many things, confused, angry, passionate, but they were also sane! It would be easier to accept if they were mad, the fact they were 'normal' makes what they did even harder to comprehend.

As I'm a similar age to them I've tried many times to put myself in their shoes. I often think: "what would it take to make me WANT do that?" I still have no real idea, this frustrates me. At their age (18-22-excluding Khan) it is easy to dismiss them as naive and not know the real difference between right and wrong. But that is too easy. Naive maybe, but not to the extent of murder. I just have no idea. But I want to understand.

Your point about no survivors hating them is so true. I've seen so much hate and anger directed at them from people who weren't even there. While there are a handful of us trying to understand, the ones who experienced it first hand, I'm afraid many more think the right apporoach is one of hatred/anger and racism. Maybe if they witnessed it too they would realise hate really does breed hate.

I'm afraid from might point of view the future appears to be bleak. But I refuse to give up hope.

March 17, 2006 3:51 pm  
Blogger fjl said...

What you say about not being able to forgive someone who doesn't want your forgiveness is real. But you can forgive them because they don't know what they do to you.

March 17, 2006 4:22 pm  
Anonymous Iain said...

Another beautifully written, sensitive and thoughtful piece. Good in a way that we get the preview version.

My view is with you - that not allowing them the oxygen of imagined post-mortem importance, of not even bothering to forgive but merely getting on with your life without them, after them, as if they never existed, is the most empowering thing you can do. They are not heroes or martyrs, just dead, lost to an un-necessary and false ideal.

What if the bombers, the haters, gave a rally in the Albert Hall ? And instead of the public outcry, the anti-groups, the media outside, 4,000 of us just showed up in silence, and slowly, one by one, turned our backs on them and walked out ? How much more effective would that be than token protests, discussions about forgiveness vs hatred ?

Iain

March 18, 2006 12:47 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you Rachel. I'm sorry you were raped and wish you didn't have to go through that. (Sounds so corny, you know what I mean. Nobody should-) I was thinking of people like you when I heard about the bombing. I knew how many people went out onto the streets to demonstrate against the war in 2003 in London.

Too struggling with "forgiveness" and not really wanting it as life gets more sh..y every year and immediate let downs by all my so-called friends on top of the murder because of the murder,PTS, reactions of people (outsiders mostly where I live), daily confrontations with the events in public discourse and the media (until the rest of my life) and all these other murder-life-in-turmoil-related consequences bred a pit of its own. I also never really cared for the alleged murderers who were killed, and yes, at some point I wondered about what makes them tick so that maybe I could make someone like that tick the other way.

But in my case the scavengers, political use of the murder of someone I loved, later there will be even more commercial use than the odd snowglobes with ambulances in front of the building, nobody asked him if he wanted other people killed because of his agony--it gets harder, not easier, and it's not my or his fault. I learnt to understand how peace works--by means of felt solid love and understanding where people are coming from--there was a venture into what truth is made of, and in what realtion to what, and now I have arrived at how I chose to deal with justice and find there can never be any because you cannot change the essential things back and give people their body and life back and make suffering unhappen while many of those guilty and in charge are living happily ever after. That again, by the way, made me wonder if that is not perhaps how some of the alleged terrorists may have felt. I decided to go and talk to people in those places also to spread some good will---and hope word will go around or help decimate some installed hatred--as that is what kept me going as well, acts of kindness by strangers.

Lots of love to London from 9-11.

www.thekindnessofastranger.com

May 24, 2006 9:36 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous has left a new comment on your post "The F word":

Thank you Rachel. I'm sorry you were raped and wish you didn't have to go through that. (Sounds so corny, you know what I mean. Nobody should-) I was thinking of people like you when I heard about the bombing. I knew how many people went out onto the streets to demonstrate against the war in 2003 in London.

Too struggling with "forgiveness" and not really wanting it as life gets more sh..y every year and immediate let downs by all my so-called friends on top of the murder because of the murder,PTS, reactions of people (outsiders mostly where I live), daily confrontations with the events in public discourse and the media (until the rest of my life) and all these other murder-life-in-turmoil-related consequences bred a pit of its own. I also never really cared for the alleged murderers who were killed, and yes, at some point I wondered about what makes them tick so that maybe I could make someone like that tick the other way.

But in my case the scavengers, political use of the murder of someone I loved, later there will be even more commercial use than the odd snowglobes with ambulances in front of the building, nobody asked him if he wanted other people killed because of his agony--it gets harder, not easier, and it's not my or his fault. I learnt to understand how peace works--by means of felt solid love and understanding where people are coming from--there was a venture into what truth is made of, and in what realtion to what, and now I have arrived at how I chose to deal with justice and find there can never be any because you cannot change the essential things back and give people their body and life back and make suffering unhappen while many of those guilty and in charge are living happily ever after. That again, by the way, made me wonder if that is not perhaps how some of the alleged terrorists may have felt. I decided to go and talk to people in those places also to spread some good will---and hope word will go around or help decimate some installed hatred--as that is what kept me going as well, acts of kindness by strangers.

Lots of love to London from 9-11.

www.thekindnessofastranger.com

May 24, 2006 9:43 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Everyone, thank you x

Kindness,

that is a lovely comment,and thank you, off to read your site x

May 24, 2006 9:45 pm  

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