The individual agony of terrorism, and the balm of music

March 13, 2004
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Published in The Times, 13th March 2004

I have just returned from one of the most moving missions I have ever taken part in. We went to Israel with two cantors and a choir to lift people’s spirits with song.

We visited schools, old age homes and community centres, but most importantly, we went to hospitals to spend time with the victims of terrorist attacks and suicide bombers. It was heartbreaking to see children maimed for life because the bus they had boarded to go to school had exploded, killing their friends and changing their world for ever.

One had lost half his family when a bomb went off in the restaurant where they were having a meal, and he himself was now blind. A young girl smiled to us bravely and said she was doing fine. She had been in intensive care for a week, and the doctors told us that had the ambulance taking her to hospital been a few minutes slower, she would have died.

We sang in memory of Yoni Jesner from Glasgow, 19 years old and one of our finest youth leaders, who died in a suicide attack on a bus in Tel Aviv. We performed a concert dedicated to the late David Applebaum, a pioneer in emergency medicine who had saved the lives of many terror victims, Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.

A deeply religious man, Applebaum devoted his life to saving life. The next day was to have been one of his happiest — his daughter’s wedding. He had taken her out for coffee the night before, when a bomb went off. Instead of standing under the bridal canopy together, they were buried together.

Terror hits the headlines for a moment and then the media’s attention moves elsewhere. What is shattering is to see what it leaves behind — the injuries, the scars, the shattered lives, the trauma and grief that may never fully heal. Even the children we met who had not been involved in any tragedy themselves, all knew of friends or relatives who had. They were brave, but this was one subject they could not talk about. It was too painful.

That was when I realised that this is the ultimate terror — not violence and death in themselves, but their sheer randomness, striking the innocent for no reason, for there is nothing that terror has achieved or ever will that could not have been better reached by other means. It is destruction for destruction’s sake.

There was nothing we could say, which is why we took music rather than words, and it made the difference. There is a hope, a joy, an affirmation that can be expressed in song that cannot be communicated in any other way. If words are the language of the mind, then music is the language of the soul. In some mysterious way, when rhythm and melody hold you in their embrace, the spirit soars free.

And so we sang with the injured and the bereaved. We danced with people in wheelchairs. The young blind boy sang a duet with the youngest member of the choir, reducing the nurses and his fellow patients to tears. Something flowed between us and for a brief and blessed moment the cruelties of fate seemed a long way away. Beethoven wrote over the manuscript of the third movement of his great A minor quartet the words Neue Kraft fühlend: “Feeling new strength ”. That is what I felt in those hospital wards.

What is it about music that makes it a signal of transcendence? Roger Scruton writes that it is “an encounter with the pure subject, released from the world of objects, and moving in obedience to the laws of freedom alone”. He quotes Rilke: “Words still go softly out towards the unsayable / And music, always new, from palpitating stones / builds in useless space its godly home.”

Standing in those hospital wards, I remembered the great musician of ancient Israel, King David, who sang to God these words: “You turned my grief into dance; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, that my heart may sing to You and not be silent.” And I felt the strength of the human spirit that no terror can destroy.