Bernard Trafford: 'Stop the world; I want to get off'

Journal columnist and Newcastle headteacher Bernard Trafford on the week from hell and our response to it

Flowers are placed on a fence in a makeshift memorial near the site where a gunman held hostages for 16 hours at a popular Sydney cafe, Australia
Flowers are placed on a fence in a makeshift memorial near the site where a gunman held hostages for 16 hours at a popular Sydney cafe, Australia

If ever there was a week when you might want to utter the old cry of “Stop the world; I want to get off”, this was surely it. We’ve seen tragedy and farce, true heroism and bathos, the highs and lows of the human condition indeed.

First, tragedy and heroism. On Monday the world watched the Sydney cafe siege end in mayhem and death. Arguably there were no surprises. Self-styled fundamentalist Sunni preacher-turned-gunman Man Haron Monis was known to police and the government, yet still got hold of a shotgun. That background will be pored over in Australia, but it’s too easy to demand that all suspicious characters be locked up: that way lies oppression and the suppression of human rights.

The siege ended in a shoot-out, with two hostages killed. Yet out of the misery comes at least some comfort about the nature of people at their best. It seems those two gave their lives to save others. Details remain sketchy, but it appears the cafe’s manager, Tori Johnson, attempted to grab the gun, a powerful example of man taking ultimate responsibility for his customers. Reports suggest the other victim, Katrina Dawson, used her body to shield a pregnant woman.

In the depths of despair, at the moment of barely imaginable madness, two people showed true heroism and generosity of spirit, sacrificing themselves for their fellow hostages. It’s uplifting, tragic and humbling all at once.

It’s almost insulting by contrast to move on to the farce and bathos of UKIP’s latest disasters. Parliamentary candidate Kerry Smith stepped down after being recorded describing a local LGBT group as “effing disgusting old poofters”. He also joked about “shooting peasants” and described a woman with a Chinese name as a “chinky”. His defence was that he was on sedatives at the time. In vino veritas; if people speak the truth under the influence of wine, do they also reveal too much when on sedatives?

The official in charge of vetting the party’s election candidates admits he spends half his time “weeding out the lunatics”. UKIP certainly attracts nutters; one of the few accurate comments to come out of Conservative head office in the last few years was that description of UKIP as “a bunch of swivel-eyed loons”.

In some ways, it’s inevitable. UKIP is a protest party. Its ideology and its support base don’t grow out of any vision for a particular kind of society; its basis is entirely negative, founded on a xenophobic dislike of foreigners, of Europe, of immigration.

Neither politicians nor the media are good at looking at history, but I often think we should look back to the Weimar Republic, in the chaos of which Hitler built his power base. He too became elected on an entirely negative message, blaming the Jews, blaming the punitive Versailles Treaty; surrounded by his own bunch of influential, charismatic nutters, he built the Nazi ideology and power base.

Nigel Farage isn’t another Hitler, but, when you see ‘ordinary people’ interviewed in the street declaring their support for him because he allegedly ‘tells it how it is’ about immigration, and spouting an incoherent, intolerant message of hatred and fear, I wish they would watch themselves on TV and decide whether they like what they see.

Returning to Sydney, I’m not sure if Man Haron Monis was following any coherent fundamentalist Islamic message; I suspect he was one of those disturbed, unstable characters who will find any cause in which to act out their sad, mad fantasies with fatal consequences.

On such topics I know I risk sounding complacent, wishy-washy, boringly middle-of-the-road. Nonetheless, when we see how extreme views expressed by UKIPpers lead to hatred (and, as a background to Kerry Smith’s downfall, an astonishing amount of back-stabbing amongst its own), and when extremist religious ideologies furnish platforms or motivations for homicidal maniacs, perhaps more of that old-fashioned British reserve, caution and tolerance is precisely what we need.

@bernardtrafford

  • Dr Bernard Trafford is headteacher at Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School. The views here are personal

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