It’s strange. Just after I heard of the killing of David Black, the prison officer, I heard that someone I admire a great deal was suffering from terminal cancer. So the two deaths came together in my head.
Condemnations of the David Black killing have come flooding in. Peter Robinson says it’s the work of ‘flat-earth fanatics’. Martin McGuinness has denounced the killing as ‘meaningless and futile’.
I’m not sure I agree. The terminal condition of the cancer sufferer is hard to attach meaning to, but the killing of David Black does have meaning. That is to say, it was done with a purpose in mind - to send a message to the prison authorities in Maghaberry about strip-searching. It’s an uncomfortable fact full of echoes from the past, but there are a number of dissident republican prisoners in Maghaberry on a dirty protest - not washing, not shaving, throwing their excrement from their cells. Apparently there is an alternative scanning process that can be used instead of strip-searching and it is used elsewhere in the north. But it hasn’t been used in Maghaberry. David Black was probably shot dead by people who believe that this will help galvanize the authorities into ending strip searching.
So to repeat, it has meaning. But equally it may be futile, or worse than futile. It may harden the resolve of the authorities to prevent any public notion that they are responding to pressure from dissidents. Then again, it may result in the authorities quietly and quickly installing scanning equipment in Maghaberry.
But whether it has meaning and/or is futile is different from asking ‘Was it morally wrong?’ I think of the cancer sufferer and I think it is surely sacrilegious to deliberately snuff out a life, erasing all the hopes and plans and life that lay ahead for this 52-year-old and those that loved him. Even if it did achieve the dissidents’ end, would it be worth it to come at such a heavy, terrible price? Doesn’t death come quick enough for us all?
But a proviso, to myself as much as anyone who may be tempted to share my reaction. There’s a man in the US today, who most of us are hoping will get another four years in the White House. He regularly gives orders that send death, not just to one man on a motorway, but to dozens at a time, wiping away the innocent with the guilty. He’s the drone-bomb man and he’s called Barack Obama. That’s how political ends are achieved in this world. So as we hold our noses at the cruel death this morning, let’s be equally outraged - maybe more outraged - at the casual slaughter that barely gets a line in print.