Guns in the Family

In the first week of September 2001, before a vastly more important story of terror and violence began to break, scenes from an unremarkable stretch of road in North Belfast occupied the news pages and television screens. Those scenes were, even to reporters hardened by more than thirty years of conflict in Northern Ireland, deeply shocking. Little girls were walking up the road to the Holy Cross school, hand in hand with their mothers or fathers. From behind a human screen of policemen in riot gear, grown-ups were spitting, throwing bottles, and screaming abuse: “whores,” “sluts,” “Fenian bastards,” “animals,” and the chant, rising in pitch and menace, of “scum, scum, scum.”

The little girls were Catholics. The adults screaming at them were Protestant residents of the enclave in which the school is situated. Coming from a society that is supposed to be a shining example of the politics of peacemaking in a darkening world, the images were all the more disheartening. In the struggle between rational politics and visceral, historically rooted ethnic hatreds, it seemed all too clear that there could be only one winner.

Two months later, the Holy Cross protest had come to a quiet end. The consequences of their terrible experience will no doubt linger in the minds of the children. The bitterness and rage that made the protesters behave so vilely will not vanish overnight. But the awful drama, played out five days a week throughout those months, is over. What happened to end it was not a tidal wave of remorse or a sudden blossoming of mutual sympathy. It was the restoration of local government to Northern Ireland after the previous arrangements for such government had fallen apart. The changed atmosphere after September 11, skillful deal-making by the British and Irish governments, and the assistance of go-betweens from several nations had a profound impact on the nasty little world of North Belfast. Here was stark evidence of an obvious truth that is hard to keep in mind when anger and revulsion dominate our thoughts. The best way to change political behavior, even of the most vicious kind, is to change the political context.

The Northern Ireland peace process was founded on a notion that has recently been seen as beyond the bounds of acceptable opinion: you should negotiate with terrorists, address their political concerns, and draw them into the democratic system. This idea, which had the enthusiastic and often crucial support of the United States, was itself the product of a more basic perception: that people who engage in organized political violence are not necessarily, or exclusively, the kind of warped individuals who would be a menace to any society. At least some of them—usually those who rise to the top—would be valuable citizens in a normal democracy. Their crimes, however appalling, may result from specific political circumstances. In Northern Ireland, this idea has been made manifest in the most dramatic way. Hundreds of people convicted of taking part in terrorist outrages have …

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