Thoughts on War Memorial Desecration

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I never wanted the post I recently wrote on the MP child abuse scandal to ignite a debate about the sanctity of war memorials. Child abuse is too important. There are rarely any ethically watertight, black and white issues on which we can all agree. Surely, I thought, if we can rally around anything we can rally around the idea that elected officials should not be allowed to get away with raping and (allegedly) murdering children, without serious public unrest. Being upset about defaced memorials while staying silent about members of our government committing sex crimes against children is like worrying about the colour of your bedspread when your house is on fire. And so I typed furiously, certain in the belief that people would agree.

But perhaps, in hindsight, I shouldn’t have used the defacing of a war memorial as a way into writing about the child abuse scandal. Some commenters have argued that the desecration of memorials can never be right, regardless of the circumstances. On the whole, people seem much more comfortable agreeing that vandalism against war memorials is wrong than they do speaking in any real way about the difficult and disturbing subject of child rape and what we are to do about it.

I don’t agree that it is always ‘wrong’ to vandalise a war memorial, although I understand why people hold that view. Memorials serve a symbolic role – they say something about the values of the society we live in, and how we treat them is a direct response to how we feel about the values they represent. There are, therefore, circumstances in which defacing a memorial is a necessary – or at least a justifiable – symbolic act, despite the fact it is also a disrespectful and most often illegal one.

Obviously it is disrespectful to deface a war memorial. That’s the point. But who are you disrespecting? That is where the issue gets interesting (if difficult), and where a simple narrative of ‘you are spitting on the graves of men and women who fought and died for you’ will not suffice. Almost everyone in this country (indeed, in the world) has someone in their recent ancestry, or even in their life, who has been affected by war. Those decrying the vandalism do not have a monopoly on conscripted grandparents. Thus we must understand that defacing a memorial is not always (ever?) about disrespecting people who have suffered and often died. Defacing a memorial is about disrespecting the state – because war memorials ALSO often serve symbolically to suggest that ‘those who fought did so because they were on the ‘right’ side, and we honour them and respect the values they fought for (which are almost always the values of the state that is in power now).’

Defacing a war memorial is usually (although not always) therefore a symbolic act against the state, which is justified and justifiable on these terms. At the Monument to the Soviet Army in Sofia there is ongoing ‘vandalism’ as artists and activists paint over the memorial to express political allegiances, including support for the Ukrainian Revolution in 2014. I think this example illustrates the symbolic ambiguity of memorials – the tension between a memorial’s role as a site of respect for individuals akin to a headstone, and a memorial’s role in symbolically sanctioning the political actions of the state. It also demonstrates how memorial ‘desecration’ can actually serve as a kind of discussion between warring groups who are unable to find common ground in speech – if one ‘side’ has to clean paint off of a memorial they are forced to physically engage with the views of their opponent (even in the act of removing those views from sight), just as the opponent must physically engage with the symbolic value of the memorial in order to deface it.

A public condemnation of the desecration of a war memorial indicates that there is a general public support for the values of the state. The criticism of the ‘Tory Scum’ graffiti on the Monument to the Women of World War II suggests that the media (and a large proportion of the public) support the Conservative government (hardly a surprise given they have just won a majority vote in a general election), and the (neo)liberal values embodied by that monument. It is of course highly unlikely that the incendiary act of painting graffiti on a war memorial will do anything in the short-term other than shore up already existing political divisions. And as yet we have no idea exactly who painted the graffiti on Saturday, or what their motivations were (I have seen speculation online that it wasn’t painted by the protesters). But the fact remains that war memorials provide a visible and potent canvas for expressing frustrations with politics and the machinations of political power – they are visible sites where we can react and where we can provoke reaction. They are important, fertile and appropriate sites for political intervention. War memorials are the public face for our public values, and they provide a public face for us to change and challenge those values too.

*Image by Getty Images


We Need to Talk about Government Child Abuse

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Over the weekend, protesters across London who had defaced a war memorial were widely (and predictably) condemned as moronic and evil by social media users and the newspaper press. They had written ‘Fuck Tory scum’, in a furious crimson scrawl, across The Monument to the Women of World War II, on Whitehall in London. Never mind that the paint could soon be washed off, this was an act so morally reprehensible as to command big screaming headlines in almost all of the national newspapers.

‘It doesn’t matter how angry you are’, said one widely quoted tweet, ‘graffiti on a war memorial is inexcusable and damn right rude.’

‘There is no excuse for violence and vandalism’, wrote another online commenter (ironically oblivious to that fact that memorials to WW2, on the whole, exist for the very purpose of justifying violence and vandalism, on a global scale).

Meanwhile, on my social media networks, a story from July 2014 was doing the rounds. Last summer, Michael Gove – our newly appointed Minister for Justice – had insisted, in an interview on the Andrew Marr show, that a public inquiry into the endemic sexual and physical abuse of children by members of parliament was unnecessary. Although he agreed that there had very likely been a wide-scale cover-up of child sex abuse, Gove didn’t like to apportion too much blame. “It was almost unconscious,” he said about the politicians who turned a blind eye when they knew that their colleagues were raping small children. “It was the thing that people did at that time.”

I don’t know about you, but reading those words makes me angry enough to want to deface a public monument. I’d merrily fling red paint over every war memorial from Ypres to Washington if it meant that the people we have elected into government might finally and properly acknowledge the horrific violence that was committed upon the most vulnerable children in our society, and mete out justice.

Of course, this weekend’s protests weren’t about child abuse per se. It’s an issue that seems to have been lost in a sea of other issues that might rightly be categorized under the heading ‘Tory Scum’ (see: bedroom tax, child poverty, disability benefit sanctions, tuition fees, trident, increasing the public debt despite austerity measures etc.).

I’m baying for violence and vandalism. Not because not because I don’t believe in the democratic process by which the Tories have been elected, not because I don’t respect the men and women who died during warfare – but because, according to allegations widely accepted by those in power to be true, some of the people we elected into government over a period of decades kidnapped, raped, assaulted and murdered children – or facilitated the cover-up of those who had. And our Minister for Justice thinks this is just a “thing that people did at that time.” I.e. in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, when I was a child, with big blue eyes and Findus Crispy Pancake dinners and an obsessive relationship with my Care Bear collection. Gove is suggesting that within living memory it was common practice to turn a blind eye if you knew children were being raped.

How can this possibly be an acceptable position for someone in government to hold? How can a man who has expressed this view be allowed to oversee the justice system in our country?

The public response to allegations of endemic child abuse has so far has been massively underwhelming. We are participating in a colossal under-reaction. Bubbles of outrage appear to have been burst by the launch of complicated, halting public and criminal inquiries that will take years to reach any satisfying climax. The complex nature of investigating historic sex abuse cases will ensure that almost all of the people who committed these terrible crimes will be dead before their victims see justice – if they aren’t dead already.

It was one terrible thing that decrepit, egoist television personalities were allowed to escape justice for decades. It is quite another thing when the very people we have entrusted to speak on our behalf are allowed to rape tiny children in plain sight and get away with it.

We should all be angry. We should all be taking to the streets, chucking washable paint over public memorials. Whatever side of the political divide we fall on we cannot let the endemic abuse of children go without a proper public outcry. There must be speedy justice and reform. We cannot allow this issue to fade away to nothing. We must show the people in power that we will not let their violence against our fellow citizens be forgotten. We must show the people in power that we will not stand for this happening ever again.

*Getty Images

This blog was first published at Huffington Post UK.