I was five years old the first time I saw a man shot to death.
It was a drunken brawl over politics that escalated into murder, and it happened in broad daylight.
I was a big fan of Westerns as a little boy; on “Gunsmoke” or “The Lone Ranger”, whenever someone got shot, they merely clutched themselves, fell over and died. And they were almost always “the bad guys.”
This was a little different. It was very different, actually, but I’ll spare you the details. Because I did not know either of the men involved, I didn’t feel traumatised in any way. At the time.
I was also shot at several times as a young boy, and by “shot at”, I actually mean being “shot around”, because I’m fairly certain those doing the shooting were merely trying to encourage me to flee the scene, which I most dutifully did. Again, no feelings of trauma. At the time.
Violence was sort of a way of life where I grew up; most disputes, at least most of those involving adolescents, were dealt with by means of fist fights. I had my fair share of those, too. Stopped counting at one hundred, actually. We never had a mass-shooting spree, for which I am thankful. We did, however, have a quite horrific stabbing at my school, which I witnessed, and how the victim survived (his femoral artery having been severed, and having to wait quite some time for medics to arrive), I’ll never know. I do know that once he recovered, he never walked quite right again. And again, I felt no trauma. At the time.
One day, my girlfriend and I were on holiday in London, minding our own business, when I was confronted by two plain-clothes policemen, for reasons I’ll never know. (Actually, I was wearing a trenchcoat and carrying a black backpack, so I suppose I looked a little suspicious; but they were definitely looking for someone or something in particular, and it sure as hell wasn’t me.)
They were both quite polite, but still doing the good-cop/bad-cop routine. They asked for my identification, which I gave them. They noted I did not have a London address. They then asked me if I was carrying any weapons; I first replied that I was not, and then I remembered something.
“Actually, I do have a Swiss Army knife in my pocket. Does that count as a weapon?”
Good cop smiled and said “no.”
Then they asked, since I did not have a London address, where I had spent the night before. I told them the truth; it was only a youth hostel, and I gave them the name.
“On your knees, please,” Bad Cop said quietly. My mind could literally not translate what he’d just said, and I said “Sorry?”
“ON. YOUR. KNEES. NOW!”
Well, two things. First off, I was shit-scared; actually had been quite nervous from the moment they approached me; secondly, it was not my first time dealing with the police, so I knew the drill. I put my hands behind my head, locked my fingers, and dropped slowly to my knees, and then crossed my ankles. And then it got worse.
Seemingly by some sort of black magic, a British soldier armed with an automatic rifle appeared, stood directly in front of me, and pointed it in my face.
I’d had British soldiers point guns at me before, but from a distance, and it was always sort of an intimidation tactic; sort of a way of saying “I’ve got my eye on you boy”, but this fella was different. He was very, very nervous; trembling in fact; and despite that I could hardly take my eyes off of the barrel of that rifle, I noticed that his trigger finger was not on the trigger guard, but the trigger itself. And so naturally, my first thought was, I’m about to be shot. I’m ashamed to say that I was not paying much attention to my girlfriend’s feelings/reactions at the time, but…
Good Cop and Bad Cop started asking me all sorts of questions while I was staring at this rifle, and I did my best to answer them. They then asked me to take off my backpack (which I did very slowly), remove all the items within, and explain each one of them.I didn’t have anything illegal in there, but I did have some Irish Republican literature.
They didn’t even look at it. As the officers became more relaxed, Soldier Boy was becoming more visibly unstable. We had quite a crowd around us by now, and despite the never-ending thought in my head that I was about to be shot, I had a second thought; at least there will be witnesses.
Which was then immediately replaced by a third thought; “What would my dad think if he knew I died on my knees?” So I did something, which at the time seemed stupid, but in retrospect, probably saved my life. I looked up at Good Cop and said, “May I please stand?”
This did not go over well with Soldier Boy. He properly shouldered his firearm and moved even closer to me as I began to stand. Even though I was looking him straight in the face, to this day I cannot recall what he looked like. Good Cop moved forward, and made a little waving motion for the man to lower his rifle and back away, which he did, still staring and trembling.
“Alright then,” Good Cop said. “Pack your things and be on your way.”
I did not need to be told twice, and neither my girlfriend nor myself looked over our shoulders as we left.
By the by, they never asked her for her identification, nor did they search her. I guess good looks go a long way.
Although shaken by the event, I did not feel traumatised. At the time. Although I did hate that soldier for many, many years.
But then, after a series of unfortunate events, I realised that he was suffering from post-traumatic-distress disorder, which I have been diagnosed with myself. It’s very real, very life-altering, and it never goes away. Some can deal with it; most cannot. It’s not an excuse; it’s a reason. So I forgave that man for terrorizing me and my girlfriend.
PTSD works in a strange way; actually, it works a bit like a firearm. It’s loaded, chambered, the safety is removed, and then during one event, it goes off. And once the round leaves the rifle, you can never take it back.
This is not about gun control or mass-shootings or British soldiers, or soldiers of any nation. It’s about the effects, and after-effects of violence, whether threatened, witnessed, or experienced first-hand. It makes you sick. A lot like looking into the barrel of a gun.