A tragedy in two acts

from page 19 of The Mercury, May 1, 1996

Tasmanian Roddy MacLean works as a journalist in Inverness, Scotland. He recently covered the atrocity in Dunblane for the Gaelic-broadcasting arm of BBC Radio Scotland. Little did he suspect that only a few weeks later he would again be reporting on another senseless massacre -- this time in Tasmania itself. He reflects on the horror endured by two stunned communities at either end of the Earth.

  The news came with a thud that was palpable. Two children dead, possibly a dozen wounded.
  Hard-bitten news journalists were stunned into silence. Surely not -- not in our beautiful, peaceful Scotland where warefare had supposedly terminated with the end of the Jacobite adventure. Not in Dunblane, that attractive town with its ancient cathedral and its quiet riverine walkways. We held off picking up the phone, waiting to hear that it was all a mistake, that wires had been inexplicably crossed.
  The uneasy still ran into minutes as the phones -- our journalistic lifelines -- stopped ringing. Our colleagues in Glasgow and Edinburgh were on their way to the scene and everybody else was glued to their radio or television. For a few short minutes our world stopped.
  In Dunblane, for almost an entire class of children and their teacher, the world had stopped forever.
  Disasters are grist to the mill of news journalists. Disasters make news. There was not one journalist, however, in Scotland that day who would not have gladly turned the clock back and gone out instead to make a humdrum report on the latest economic indicators, or the internal machinations of the Tory Party.
  We did not want to report the Dunblane massacre. We simply had to.
  The phones were lifted, though the hearts were heavy.
  As the death toll mounted, my parents in Tasmania phoned me. They had heard the awful news and wanted to express what they could of human solidarity with me, to comfort the son who had reached adulthood through their love and care. You never stop being a parent.
  Scotland was a land in mourning -- and they had realised how stunned and helpless we would feel.
  I had just been behind the microphone telling Gaelic-speaking people of the country of the unbelievable atrocity that had happened in their midst. My voice was strong and vibrant, my lips steady.
  I convinced myself to concentrate on the scripted words, not on the images of happy children and a smiling teacher who were no more.
  I shut my own two beautiful children out of my mind -- the tearful lingering cuddles they wouldn't understand would have to wait till evening.
  On Sunday my parents phoned me again. Bad news. I had not been listening to the radio. A tragedy. Not again, please, not in my beloved Tasmania. Port Arthur. A place of holidays and water-skiing, of convict tours, bush smells and and sunshine. Of an automatic rifle spitting death.
  More phone calls and microphones. More wanting to turn the clock back. More stiff upper lip. More tears. More questions on how it can be legal for a civilian to own a gun which has no purpose other than the killing of human beings. More questions without any reasonable answers.
  It is easy to explain to people in Scotland about Tasmania, and for once everyone is asking.
  I speak momentarily of the beauty, the glories of the wilderness, the clarity of the air, the goodness of the people. Then I tell them -- "for Port Arthur, read 'Dunblane'". They understand it then as another peaceful and civilised land torn asunder in an unpredictable and inexplicable manner by one madman.
  I cannot say anything which will be of comfort to Tasmanians from the recent Scottish experience. Perhaps the people of Dunblane itself will be able to offer some scraps of advice to the people of Port Arthur and to those who so tragically lost loved ones.
  Dunblane, however, is still a town in mourning. I can ony say that the road ahead is hard and uneven and nobody in Tasmania will be able to avoid the potholes entirely.
  Some Dunblane folk, when asked casually where they come from are now more likely to say "near Stirling" rather than invoke an awkward response by naming their town. I fervently hope that it will not be for one horrendous day in its history that Tasmania becomes known around the world, when there is so much there that is inspirational and worthy of praise.
  Goodness knows, we had to jettison "Van Diemen's Land" a century and a half ago.
  For those of us with loved ones in, and with a deep love of, both Scotland and Tasmania, the two visitations at either end of the world have left our world the darker.
  We have experienced, however, not only the evil, but also the uplifting goodness of humankind -- of the medical staff and counsellors, of the police, and emergency workers, of those who braved danger and gave succour, of the ordinary people in many parts of our shared planet whose bewilderment, outrage, support and love have been directed, first to Dunblane and now to Port Arthur.
  I ask one thing only on a personal level -- that I never have to go behind a microphone again to report on any such atrocity, at either end of the world or anywhere in between.

[images: "You never stop being a parent: Flowers laid in memory of the children killed in Dunblane." (26x10)
"The end of the line: Police and firefighter sift through the debris of the burnt-out Seascape guest house." (26x10) ]

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