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Forgive me for the Westgate atrocity

For once, I don’t know what to write in this column.

I’m not normally at a loss for words, but last week’s Westgate atrocity confounds analysis. That we can come to this leaves me wondering what more needs to be written or said.

So heavily armed people can walk into a shopping mall and start tossing grenades indiscriminately at anyone and everyone around them. So someone can stroll into a tent where a children’s cookery competition is being held, point his gun at the kids and their mothers, and press the trigger. So it matters little that these are defenceless, unarmed, innocent people – they must be butchered. And it must be done in the name of God.

I really don’t have the words to comfort those whose loved ones were killed in front of their eyes. I don’t have the words to sympathize with those who spent hours hiding in abject terror. I don’t have the words to express my appreciation for those who went into that slaughterhouse to risk their own lives to rescue others. I don’t have the words to record my admiration for those who cooked food, brought supplies, provided counsel, or donated blood and money to the rescue effort.

But I do have the words to say this. I am deeply and personally sorry.

Accusatory words have been flying, and many more will fly. We will express outrage at the attackers and their motives and beliefs. We will condemn our own failures as a nation for making it so easy for terror cells to thrive in our midst. Most of us will have something to say about lots of people who are evil or incompetent or corrupt. And so we should.

But first, let me accuse myself.

Thich Nhat Hahn is a Vietnamese monk. He once wrote a remarkable poem called ‘Call Me by My True Names’. In it he makes a simple point. We are all responsible for the state of the world. We are all culpable for every crime that is committed. Look deeply enough at the evil in the world, and you will see yourself. So call yourself by your true names.

I am culpable because whenever I saw fundamentalists of all religions spout their venom, I made myself mute.

I am culpable because whenever I heard people of one type talk trash about ‘those others,’ I made myself deaf.

I am culpable because I knew I live in a society that is deeply corrupt and morally bankrupt, and I made myself blind.

I am culpable because I knew that many more people than died in Westgate were slaughtered in similar ways in something called ‘post-election violence,’ and I thought that had little to do with me, perhaps because it was far away from me.

I am culpable because I live in a world full of hypocrisy, where people sing with gusto in churches and temples and mosques, and then go home to promote every possible sin. I live in a world where people elect thieves and hope the thief will steal something for them. I live every day in this world, and I don’t do enough to change it.

When you live in a world of hate, intolerance, greed and self-absorption, the Westgate horror is where you end up.

So I apologize unreservedly for my part in this calamity. I am truly sorry.

I can only reach for the remaining vestiges of hope in the rubble of Westgate. I am hopeful because I saw people risk their own lives (and lose them) to save the children of strangers. Those people give me the strength to believe that there is still virtue and selflessness in the world, and that we should bring those things back into the centre of our lives.

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