Earlier today 132 schoolchildren were shot dead in their school uniforms, in a premeditated attack by the Taliban in Peshawar, Pakistan.
An eyewitness remarked: “They did not come with the intention to take hostages. Their purpose was to kill children”
photo via BBC website
Shocking, yes. Yes, it's terrible. Awful. Did you see? Yes, I know.
But the news comes at a time of Christmas parties and compassion fatigue.
But yes, it's unbelievable. The children. The faces. The horror. How could they do that?
Hang on, how *could* they do that?
No doubt it's indecent to link such a tragedy to my current professional purpose - a reappraisal of spirituality and why it matters- but in this case I ask forgiveness of those directly affected, and am willing to take the risk - the underlying issues are too important.
What happened in Peshawar today wasn't just sad or shocking. It was a profound violation of the sacred. It was a moral transgression that, for me at least, feels deeper than 9/11.
And yes, I know such comparisons should not be made. It's not, y'know, appropriate, or forgivable even. But like I said, on this one I'll risk it. What happened today was not just about the violation of the sacred in some abstract theoretical sense, it's an aberration - or at least should be- of our sense of moral limits.
It's the death and the dying, and the love and the loss. It's the parents who can't hug their children tonight. And they are breathing just like you and me. But also weeping, no doubt.
I want to share my confusion about this, because I suspect I am not alone. On the one hand, the world should stop, because our sense of reality has been shattered. On the other hand, we carry on, because that's just what we do.
Personally, I heard the news from my wife, several hours after it happened. I clicked online and saw the headlines, scanned for more details and felt something resembling 'gosh', but nothing deeper. I had seen many 'similar things' before, and there were even more familiar things that had to be done in the next hour; decisions to make, plans to execute. I was still on auto-pilot, I didn't stop...
But then I went out to collect my five year old son from a play date, and as I was walking in the cold winter air it hit me: They. killed. 132. Children.
And it was premeditated. Taliban assassins walked in to a school and extinguished all those young tender lives, for political purposes the children knew nothing of.
On *feeling* this fact for the first time, I started welling up, stopped, and turned off the music on my Ipod. Then started walking again. I don't do indignation very well, but amongst the feelings there was definitely some rage, though most of the feelings were diffuse, a non-specific human wound. And I turned the music back on.
Of course, the Taliban will have their side of the story; and there is no casual moral equivalence or implied justification in acknowledging they have lost children too, nor in pointing out that it was an army school they attacked.
But nonetheless the sense of wrongness quietly screams through your soul, muffled by layers of fear and conditioning. It's happening inside you, but you are too scared to look or listen, for fear you might be overcome.
The sense of sacrilege is partly about school being a safe place, but mostly it stems from a deep awareness of what it feels like to love your children; and then from imagining how it would feel to have the daily expression of that love vanish from your life so suddenly and brutally.
And randomly. For though we are scared to admit it, what happened in Peshawar could happen to any of us, or any of our children, at any time. Remember Dunblane. Remember 7/7. Such things don't happen every day, but who knows what tomorrow might bring.
There are well over a million Pakistanis living in the UK. Their homeland was violated and they may feel the shock more viscerally than most. But in a global village it is weak-willed to see it as their issue alone, because we are all to a greater or lesser extent involved.
One way to think of the soul is that it's the aspect of being human that turns events into experiences - and for those who allow the image of what happened today to get through their defences, this was an experience.
If we can't feel events like these as experiences, haven't we lost an important part of what it means to be human? And if so, shouldn't we maybe admit that, and try to help each other do something about it?
I can't be sure what others feel, but after writing this post I'll go back to normal life. I'm hungry and just received a prawn chow mein take away because I felt unable to cook. My son is watching David Attenborough and I need to put him to bed. After that, I have some footnotes to attend to.
Though momentarily gutted an hour or so ago I don't find myself sobbing or feeling particularly mournful. And expressions of sympathy to those who have lost their lives and loved ones feels too much like playing to the crowd.
But I write this because I know in my bones that something important happened today. And regardless of statements, most of us will not react on the inside in the way we probably should.
Amidst all my other reactions, I thought about the report on spirituality that I've just finished. It's called Love, Death, Self and Soul. While these four touchstones of the spiritual were all deeply embedded in today's event, and experience, they don't really tell me what to feel.
I'm fairly sure life is no less about Christmas parties today than it was yesterday, before Peshawar. But equally, I feel that facing up to such events should help bring about a life that is more about trying to shake ourselves out of spiritual complacency; talking more to each other about the deaths we cannot prevent, and the politics we cannot ignore.
Normal life absorbs abnormal events. but abnormal experiences should shake our lives to the core. So why does is not feel like that is happening, when something happened today?