There must be better things to do on a glorious summer morning than write about killing and murder, but it’s one of those things that keeps coming up.
The matter of murder seems to hold great fascination for a lot of peoplehere, particularly murder as it relates to the Troubles and more particularly as it relates to the actions of the IRA in the Troubles period.
My dictionary defines murder as “the act of putting a person to death intentionally and unlawfully”. That last word is probably the most important - ‘unlawfully’. It hints that there might be a lawful circumstance in which someone is put to death intentionally.
Are there circumstances where the intentional putting of a person to death is lawful? Well for years in Britain and Ireland, capital punishment was lawful. In many parts of the world it still is. Outside capital punishment, if we look at two of the greatest mass killings in modern times - Hiroshima and Nagasaki - few people would say that hundreds of thousands of people were murdered on the command of Harry Truman. Likewise those who kill in the name of their country - British soldiers who have fought and, presumably, killed in places like Afghanistan - not only are not considered murderers, they are hailed as heroes and often given medals for their work.
But that’s not new. The American Revolution of 1776, the storming of the Bastille in 1789 , Easter 1916 - these are seen as heroic acts, selfless acts which involved the intentional putting of many people to death. There are some - usually unionist - who see the men of Easter 1916 as murderers, but most Irish people would regard them as heroes. When the ten hunger-strikers died here in 1981, they did so on the grounds that they should be regarded as political prisoners, not common criminals. That is, that the killings or related actions they were involved with were not murder.
The taking of human life must be the ultimate obscenity. Each life is unique and to snuff it out is a truly terrible deed. But since human beings existed, probably, there has been the belief that in some circumstances, killing others is the only course left open. To say that you chose not to kill while others did is not a valid argument, for the very good reason that we can’t have the experience of others, only our own. We don’t know what possibilities existed or seemed to exist for them, what seemed to them morally justified or not morally justified. And as I say, since earliest times groups and tribes and nations have seen physical force as their only resort and have used it, and a distinction between that and killing for private motives of revenge or spite is universally accepted.
So when people insist that killings in a particular conflict are murder, what they really mean is that the conflict was unnecessary and that other means of redressing problems of injustice and post-colonialism could have been used. When people such as the hunger-strikers insisted that armed force - the killing of others - was the only course left open to them, they are arguing that what they did beyond the prison walls must be distinguished from the actions of the common murderer.
If you’re a pacificist, you’ll reject that argument along with every other argument for the taking of human life. If you’re not a pacifist and condemn the physical force used during our Troubles, to be consistent you’ll have to condemn George Washington, Winston Churchill, Sir Walter Raleigh, Henry VIII and just about any leader who saw violence and the killing of others as the only possible option in the circumstances. I haven’t heard anyone presume to call any of those named above a mass murderer. But then, consistency has never been a striking feature of those who cry “Murder!” about the period of the Troubles.