Bombs, Belfast, Boston: The scars of terrorism
Bombs. Belfast. Boston. Sadly, they now go together, linked by the lethal tools of terrorism: Kill, maim, scare. The terrorist toolkit includes a variety of weapons to accomplish those evil goals, though bombs and bullets remain the favorites. Ironically, when my wife and I lived in Boston many years ago, it was the powerful hands of the Boston Strangler that inflicted fear throughout the city. But Boston’s latest fear comes closer to what Belfast, another city we know fairly well, had to endure for decades. The psychological effects run deep and can be enduring. Case in point: Mabel Hempton. The Irish Republican Army tried to kill her three times — and finally succeeded when she died of fright 30 years later. Mabel was one of four female prison guards at the Armagh Jail who were attacked by the IRA as they walked to lunch one day in 1979. Raked by a barrage of bullets, the women crumpled to the ground, one dead, three wounded. A blast bomb was then hurled back atop them to finish the job. But Mabel survived and was taken to the hospital — where, a day later, an IRA man wearing a white medical coat entered her room to finish the job. His disguise didn’t fool Mabel, and luckily her shrieking scream chased him away before he could complete his deadly task. But Mabel wasn’t out of the woods yet; in fact, she never would be since fear followed her wherever she went after those three brushes with death.Crippled for life, Mabel went to live with her sister after the attack. Confined to a wheelchair, she was constantly asking her sister to open the window to expel the acidic fumes of the blast bomb, forever fresh in her mind. She would be haunted for years by the fear that the terrorists “are coming back to get me.” And in a sense they did. A brief rash of renewed terrorist murders in Belfast in 2009 triggered Mabel’s final panic attack. “The surge of fear lasted several days … and culminated in her death. Jennifer Doolan said her sister … suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and never got over being targeted by the IRA.” (Belfast News Letter, March 21, 2009). I made eight trips to Belfast, observing and writing about Northern Ireland’s troubles. That first trip in 1979 also took me perilously close to an IRA incendiary bomb that engulfed a building in a giant orange-red bubble of flame. I later talked to the mother of a young girl who had a close call since her school was next door to the fire-bombed building. The mother was still visibly shaken herself and said that her daughter had initially been traumatized by a series of IRA bombs that had exploded throughout the night, one every hour like clockwork — boom, boom, boom. Her daughter thereafter would throw herself to the floor of their car if a passing car backfired. Hopefully, she outgrew her fear, and Belfast is a much quieter city nowadays. But, yes, Belfast and now Boston, as well as Oklahoma City and New York City, know the terror of bombs. After the Oklahoma City bombing n 1995, the then-Lord Mayor of Belfast, Hugh Smyth, wrote a general letter of shared empathy and encouragement to Americans: “We have not been defeated by the bomb. Terrorism became a crucible for testing our tenacity. … You will draw strength from the suffering and courage of ordinary people. … Anger must be channeled into resolve rather than revenge. …Terrorism, as deadly and mindless as it often is, is a sign of weakness. Your people and great democracy must unite to defeat it. Our hearts reach out to you at this time of sorrow.” His words could be repeated and redirected to Boston, and to the rest of us, today. We have many more friends than enemies. But we must indeed deal with the ones we have.
James F. Burns is a professor emeritus at the University of Florida. He lives in Gainesville.