This Sunday’s two-minute silence for Armistice Day will no doubt be a solemn, dignified occasion as ever. It will, not, however, be a particularly exclusive one. In recent years, silences have been become a feature of all kinds of public mourning occasions, be it to mark the deaths of police officers gunned down in the line of duty, children killed in cold blood, or those who perish in disasters such as Hillsborough. Even the peaceful deaths of well-loved footballers, such as the late Scottish international Jim Baxter, have had silences observed in their honour.
While I wouldn’t want to question the respect due to the dead, I can’t help wondering whether such a plethora of silences does undermine a central message of Remembrance Sunday. Which is, surely, to give us a sense of perspective, and to remind us that whatever day-to-day calamities there might be in our safe modern world, we no longer have to worry about the kind of existential threats that claimed so many lives in our two World Wars. It is, indeed, a case of “lest we forget” — the purpose of the two-minute silence is partly to provide comfort in bereavement, to remind us that no matter how hard things might seem, previous generations endured such suffering of an altogether different magnitude.
The first time this really struck me was during the two-minute silence held after the 2005 London bombings, when I had just started work at the Telegraph’s old offices at Canary Wharf tower. I had recently returned from a two-year reporting stint in Baghdad, and while it was impressive to look out the tower window and see so many people standing still in the streets below, I remember thinking also that attacks of the kind that had just claimed 52 lives in London happened almost daily in Iraq. Which also gave me an idea of what the average al-Qaeda operative in Iraq would be thinking, had they seen the silence broadcast on TV.
It would, I reckon, have been something along the lines of: “Look at what our brothers in London have achieved … Just a few of the bombs that we have every day here in Iraq, and their whole country comes to a halt. Think what will happen if we do even more …” I am sure that was not what our then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, really had in mind.
As I understand it, part of the reason for introducing Remembrance Sunday and the two-minute silence in the first place was that Britain had been collectively traumatised by the First World War. It was not the vicarious, “Lady-Diana-has-died-and-I-feel personally-bereaved” grief, but a genuine sense of a national loss that had torn gaping holes in marriages, families, classrooms, workplaces and ultimately, an entire generation of young men. And part of the reason it hurt so much was that Britain wasn’t used to it, having fought the majority of Victorian-era conflicts abroad, and usually against weak opponents who stood little chance of inflicting real damage.
That Victorian situation is, thankfully, the one we essentially find ourselves in again today, with our conflicts limited to fairly one-sided encounters in the likes of Iraq and Afghanistan. And when Remembrance Sunday comes, I for one will be silently grateful for it. Once a year, though, for me, is enough.