Saturday 15 December 2012

Good night, children, and God bless.

On the outskirts of the town of Yekaterinburg in mid-Russia, there lies a field, filled with lilies. The lilies bloom in summer, near the anniversary of a terrible act that happened near this peaceful spot, nearly a century ago. In the summer, when the lilies are in bloom and swaying gently in the breeze, the field is filled with the muted sounds of respectful pilgrims. Nearby, several small churches allude to the site's religious significance for many Russians; bouquets of flowers and hand-made memorials litter the field, giving the impression that what happened here was a recent tragedy. 

It was here, in this field, in the panicked darkness of a July night in 1918, that the bodies of Tsar Nicholas II, his wife, their five children and four remaining servants, were stripped, burned, disfigured with acid and buried. Later, the bodies were moved further into the forest, to avoid detection, but it is here that the gunmen who murdered the imperial family first tried to cover up the dreadful nature of their crime. The murder of the Romanovs became one of the most famous massacres of the twentieth century; at the distance of nearly one hundred years, it still has the power to shock and to horrify. Its lawlessness, its depravity, its disregard for human life and, perhaps above all, its contempt for the innocent blood of children, has helped fix it in the public's mind as a symbol "of the century we had." When the historian and writer, Jonathan Dimbleby, visited the field in 2008, his camera men picked up on one of the memorials in the field. It had been placed there by an English admirer of the Romanovs - a simple wooden cross, upon which was written the words, "Good night, children and God bless."

Yesterday in the Connecticut town of Newtown, a man who is presumed to have been 20-year-old Adam Lanza murdered his mother and drove to a nearby elementary school, with an approximate population of seven hundred. He entered the school with three weapons and gunned down twenty children and seven members of staff in the space of six or seven minutes. An employee risked their life by running through the school shouting warnings; another had the good sense to turn on the intercom to make the announcement. Teachers barricaded themselves in their classroom and did their best to save the students. Local law enforcement was on call swiftly and both the Governor of Connecticut and the President of the United States, clearly deeply moved himself, addressed a nation that was stunned by the horror of what occurred. Later, the people of Newtown gathered for a candlelight vigil outside the town's Saint Rose of Lima parish Church. They lit candles and sang Silent Night.

Inevitably, the debate will soon turn to America's gun laws and the second amendment of 1791. Some conservatives with more polemic than sense will insist that liberals are exploiting the tragedy of Newtown to criticize laws that they don't like and have never liked. They'll be accused of opportunism. What the proper political response is, though, I don't know. Only a fool, or an ostrich, would insist that after events like this that something doesn't need to happen. They are an all-too frequent occurrence in America and some tightening of the gun laws, I suppose, does seem inevitable - even desirable. That, however, is a debate for the elected representatives of the American people and one for the weeks ahead. On both sides of the aisle, we can dare to dream that there will be reasoned and thoughtful arguments; a proportional and fitting response to the reality of the circumstances. 

In the meantime, moving away from the politics of change, the most fitting testament to the fallen of Newtown are the same words on the little wooden cross in the field of swaying lilies in Yekaterinburg - "Good night, children, and God bless." It is heartbreaking. 


  1. Thank you, Gareth, for making the connection with the massacre at Yekaterinburg. I was thinking the same thing. Murder of young people haunts this century as it did the last one, beginning with the birth of Communism.

  2. Thank you for this beautifully fitting post.


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