Here in the UK we are all following, intently or wearily, the furore created by the declaration of intent by Anjem Choudary and Islam4UK to hold a procession through the streets of Wootton Basset “not in memory of the occupying and merciless British military, but rather the real war dead who have been shunned by the Western media and general public as they were and continue to be horrifically murdered in the name of Democracy and Freedom – the innocent Muslim men, women and children.”
Silly stunt, you may say. Politicians of all hues have condemned him. Many would ban him. Sir Hugh Orde, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo), says he would be “surprised” if senior officers in Wiltshire seek to block the protest because any group has a right to march even if their views are “unpleasant and offensive … Our view is we will have to deal with it, people have a right to march. People might not like it but that is the law.”
Whichever side you’re on, it’s worth looking at this in the light of the ritual which now attends the repatriation of dead service people. That’s what I want to focus on: this new ritual.
It’s a recent thing, this bringing home our dead, only made possible by skilful morticians, refrigeration and aeroplanes. It’s a novelty. It’s also a curiosity. These processions through Wootton Bassett look like funeral processions, but they’re not. They are journeys to the coroner. When dead civilians go to the coroner they go, not in a hearse, but in a low key van of some sort (call it a private ambulance if you like) in everyday traffic. It’s a non-event and none the poorer for that. The funeral to come is the thing, after all.
It’s as if these dead service people are being given a sort of pre-funeral. Why? Don’t people have the opportunity to honour them (or protest about them) after the coroner has handed them back to their families at their funeral proper? Of course they do. So why?
It’s an invention of the Ministry of Defence. PR? It’s your call. These processions are well regarded. And bringing home the dead in this way certainly gives the country a way of counting the cost of the war in Afghanistan.
But while these processions offer ordinary people the chance to pay their respects to the dead, they have also become expressions of patriotism and militarism. Wootton Bassett is no place for pacifists or dissenters. It’s Daily Mail country. It’s got political. So it’s no surprise to see the political Mr Choudary requiring the right, in his own way, to drive home the cost of the war to Afghan civilians.
If Wootton Bassett has become a political battleground, the invention of this about-to-be-hijacked ritual is something the MoD may now regret.
No death threats, please. Use a comments box to put me right.