“Gunman Mural” CC Licenced by Still Burning (Flickr)
Every second house was daubed with murals of gunmen, hidden by balaclavas, proudly holding their Armalites. Across the city, the murals changed. The only differences were the colours and the slogans.
This was Belfast of the early 1990’s. The men depicted on the walls were adored. Heroes to their communities. To the hard hit residents on both sides of the conflict, the men with guns were their protectors. For a teenager, to be a man with a gun was something to be admired. A career aspiration, as it were.
I’m not sure if the same murals still adorn the gables of Dee Street, the Falls and the Shankill, but no matter. Similar images can be seen today in the Ukraine. In Syria. In Iraq. In Libya. In the Central African Republic. In Israel. In Gaza. Across the world, people are still in thrall to the men with the guns.
Even in more peaceful places, we still honour our gunmen. We commemorate their bravery. We thank our lucky stars we were not born in their time, in their place, when they had little choice but to do or die. We try to forget the horror of what they experienced.
In doing so, we often forget what violence they may have wrought on others, how many lives were lost or destroyed at their hands. As a generation, we pride ourselves on minimising violence, yet we seem to treat the destructive bloodshed of war as some kind of noble exception.
Many studies have pointed to a decline in our long-term love affair with violence. The likelihood of us being killed through violence has greatly diminished in the last thousand years, great wars notwithstanding. Whereas witch burnings, scalpings, torture and beheadings were once commonplace, for most of us they have passed into dim folklore. Today, most countries, there are strong proscriptions against murder, assault, abuse, cruelty and rape. Our moral perspective compels us to be repulsed by such outrages.
And yet war, perhaps the greatest outrage of them all, is still lionised. The martial ceremonies, the pomp, the glamour. TV programmes portray war as the most noble of causes. Movies glamourise it. How quickly we forget the mass-graves, the orphaned children, the torture and unimaginable suffering, the maimings and preventable losses that last lifetimes. War’s legacy is always one of sorrow, hurt and hatred.
We need to grow up as a species and put the war-mongers in their rightful place. In a civilised society, sporting weapons should be as shameful as pedophilia, human trafficking and genital mutilation. When a man picks up a gun to resolve differences, we should see it not as a badge of honour, but as a mark of shame.
I am not so naive as to think this easy to do. Just one gun-toting idiot in a peaceful society is enough to have us all rushing for armed protection. Armies are a necessary evil in the world we live in. Nevertheless, to look at gunmen as glorious, and not as a sign of failure and last resort – that attitude needs to go. We need to end our love affair with the men with the guns. They symbolise nothing more than throw-backs to our brutal, bloodstained origins.