Thursday, May 19, 2005

`Just tell me why’

It was a small news item in the Inquirer’s The World section two days ago, datelined Enniskillen, Northern Ireland and written by Associated Press’ Paul Majendie. The section editor gave it a longish headline that ran across the entire page: ``Just tell me why you did it, grieving father asks IRA bomber.’’ I found myself reading the story again and again. Page A10, if you wish to read it.

The article was very short but powerful. Not weepy at all, except the last small paragraph where the dam broke. Something about the story sounded very familiar, very universal, very primal. Was it the pain, was it the senselessness, was it the wound that would not heal?

``After 25 years of grieving, John Maxwell dearly wants to ask the IRA bomber who killed his teenage son a simple question: `Why did you do it?’

``Only when he knows the answer can he bury the ghosts from one of the most notorious Irish Republican Army attacks in its 30-year fight to oust Britain from Northern Ireland.

``Maxwell’s 15-year-old son Paul was the boat-boy for Queen Elizabeth’s cousin Lord Louis Mountbatten. Both were killed in 1979 when an IRA bomb exploded on board shortly after they set sail from the fishing village of Mullaghmore…’’

Yes, I do remember Mountbatten—that dashing viceroy to India in the dying days of the British raj played by Peter O’Toole in the movie ``Gandhi’’—being killed. I do not remember the young teenager who was also killed in the bombing. But his father would never ever forget. It has stayed in his heart, in his mind, in that cold dark depth where few could enter.

The story said that under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday accord that brought an uneasy peace to Northern Ireland, hard-line prisoners were released early from jail. Among them was Thomas McMahon, the bomber who killed Maxwell’s son and three others. He was freed in 1998.

Maxwell, 68, a retired school teacher, said of the bomber who scarred his life: ``I would want to meet him. If there is any sign that we share a common humanity, it would be worth it.’’

He added: ``If he could come halfway toward seeing my point of view, it would be worthwhile.’’

The story said that it took Maxwell 18 years to pluck up the courage to see a psychotherapist and relive that nightmare day when his son ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

``It was unfinished business,’’ Maxwell said. ``I was holding it all in. I cried for two hours. That was the big turning point for me.’’

Maxwell could very well be a Filipino, a universal Everyman or Everyvictim of senseless violence.

You never know. You walk the streets on blistering, hot days or on wet, soggy nights and you never know who among the people you meet are grieving the loss of loved ones or are carrying the unhealed wounds from some hideous crime done to their person. The walking wounded, if you pardon the cliché, we will always have with us and they have been growing in number lately.

You watch courtroom proceedings where those accused of heinous crimes are sentenced and it is not only the convicts and their families that let out primal screams. The victims and their families who are, at last, supposedly getting justice weep and gnash their teeth just as hard, saying that nothing, but nothing, could ever take away the pain.

The lesson, they say, is ``for the others’’ that they may not commit the same crime. Their victory is ``for the others’’, that they may not suffer the same. As for themselves, they could only hope that some normalcy—it is hard for them to pronounce the word joy--would creep back into their lives.

I think of these things, during these oppressive summer days when we constantly look up to the heavens to beg for the relief of rain, even acid-laced rain, to cool our heated brows. I think of all these as I see the images of those who are crushed, those whose hopes are dashed.

Rape survivor Karen Vertido is holding her head high because some other kind of justice, not necessarily legal justice, and the wave of support from women will carry her far. She is not defeated and she will not be alone.

Journalists are being murdered one after another. In some dark alleys or inside public vehicles, helpless, hard-working citizens are being robbed of their meager possessions. There is no sense in killing someone for a cell phone or a wallet.

The small-time felons always say they did not mean to kill but, uh, things got out of hand. Ows? And what about those who, in the name of ideology, planted bombs in the LRT, buses, the marketplaces, malls, piers, the ferries, harming those who knew nothing about causes? What about those who kidnapped and killed their prey, those who maimed and beat the life out of those they wanted to be their ``Brod’’? Brod daw. Ask the mother of frat neophyte Lenny Villa what it is like to lose a son.

``Sana maramdaman mo rin,’’ (I hope you get to feel what it is like) is the tearful refrain of those who will be hurting all their lives. As if that would make the pain subside.

There is, at some point, a need on the part of victims and survivors to confront the ghosts and the demons. In the case of Maxwell, it is not so much to say to the bomber, ``Behold what you have done.’’ Maybe it is not even to get an answer to `Why did you do it?’’ for Maxwell might get the plainest reply.

Suddenly I think of Pope John Paul II meeting with his assassin Mehmet Ali Agca in prison. That kind. But you don’t do that with a cell phone snatcher who killed.

To look into each other’s eyes, to stand on the same ground at last, and together, to behold the evil that was done and also the good that might yet be. Maxwell has been waiting more than 20 years for the moment. I hope it comes.