The Spectator

Bigley’s fate

We have lost our sense of proportion about what constitutes a tragedy

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The soccer international between England and Wales last Saturday managed to display in an instant two of the most unsavoury aspects of life in modern Britain. A request by the authorities for a minute’s silence in memory of Mr Ken Bigley, the news of whose murder by terrorists in Iraq had broken the previous day, was largely and ostentatiously ignored. Yet the fact that such a tribute was demanded in the first place emphasised the mawkish sentimentality of a society that has become hooked on grief and likes to wallow in a sense of vicarious victimhood. There had been a two-minute silence for Mr Bigley that same morning in Liverpool, according him the same respect offered annually to the million-and-a-half British servicemen who have died for their country since 1914.

No one can make light of the appalling fate suffered by the hostage. His imprisonment, his witnessing of the shocking murders of his two fellow hostages and his own hideous decapitation by the psychopathic criminals who kidnapped him provide an object lesson in human depravity and barbarity. But we have lost our sense of proportion about such things. There have, as a correspondent to the Daily Telegraph pointed out this week, been no such outbreaks of national mourning whenever one of our brave soldiers is killed serving his country in Iraq.

The extreme reaction to Mr Bigley’s murder is fed by the fact that he was a Liverpudlian. Liverpool is a handsome city with a tribal sense of community. A combination of economic misfortune — its docks were, fundamentally, on the wrong side of England when Britain entered what is now the European Union — and an excessive predilection for welfarism have created a peculiar, and deeply unattractive, psyche among many Liverpudlians. They see themselves whenever possible as victims, and resent their victim status; yet at the same time they wallow in it. Part of this flawed psychological state is that they cannot accept that they might have made any contribution to their misfortunes, but seek rather to blame someone else for it, thereby deepening their sense of shared tribal grievance against the rest of society. The deaths of more than 50 Liverpool football supporters at Hillsborough in 1989 was undeniably a greater tragedy than the single death, however horrible, of Mr Bigley; but that is no excuse for Liverpool’s failure to acknowledge, even to this day, the part played in the disaster by drunken fans at the back of the crowd who mindlessly tried to fight their way into the ground that Saturday afternoon. The police became a convenient scapegoat, and the Sun newspaper a whipping-boy for daring, albeit in a tasteless fashion, to hint at the wider causes of the incident.

Now, part of the disproportionate convulsion of grief for Mr Bigley is prompted by the assertion that the Prime Minister has the hostage’s ‘blood on his hands’. That is nonsense. None of us can say with perfect confidence how we would behave in such circumstances, and facing such psychological pressures, but in so far as Mr Bigley chose to blame Tony Blair or the British government, he was wrong. Only those who killed him have blood on their hands. The truth is that Ken Bigley sought to make a living by undertaking work in one of the most dangerous areas on the planet. He went there against the express advice of the Foreign Office. He chose to live with a pair of Americans and seemed unconcerned about his personal security. His motives and misjudgments do not lessen the horror and injustice of his death; but they should, without lessening our sympathy for him and his family, temper the outpouring of sentimentality in which many have engaged for him. It is a form of behaviour that was kick-started in this country after the death of an even more ambiguous figure, the late Diana, Princess of Wales. As a manifestation of our apparently depleted intelligence and sense of rationality, it bodes extremely badly for this country.

Mr Bigley might not have read the last entries in Captain Scott’s journals, but they have a resonance for him: ‘We took risks. We knew that we took them. Things have turned out against us. Therefore, we have no cause for complaint.’ Captain Scott’s mentality used to be the norm for chancers and adventurers. Now, after generations of peace and welfarism, and in a society where the blame and compensation cultures go hand in hand, our modern-day buccaneers seem determined to go about their activities not merely unprepared for the likely consequences, but indignant about them. It is time we recognised that, in such a situation, it is not a breach of natural justice that the Lone Ranger does not come galloping over the horizon; it is exactly how life is. In our maturity as a civilisation, we should accept that we can cut out the cancer of ignorant sentimentality without diminishing, as in this case, our utter disgust at a foul and barbaric act of murder.