A Bee in my bonnet.
In conversation recently with some experienced bloggers and copywriters someone said that a lot of her blogs came about as a result of her getting a bee in her bonnet about something which then became the inspiration for a story. This bee has been buzzing around my bonnet for over thirty years now and I have never written about it. Thank you for the unintentional prod Jo Watson.
Age lends perspective. Once, I was too young, too close and too inexperienced to really appreciate the importance of what had happened and how it mattered. Over more than thirty years the thoughts and images have rested in my brain but at no time have I had the words to describe or do justice to the events of that day.
I still don’t.
There will be no happy ending to this tale. In a very real sense, there will be no ending at all until every single person involved, at every level is dead and gone and the day is utterly forgotten. It’s a thing that drips poison into the well of life.
This is a story about tribalism. The power the tribe has to affect the behaviour of its members, for good or ill.
I’m a flawed narrator. I don’t understand tribal human behaviour. I’m no psychologist and have never naturally been a person who was attracted by membership of groups of any kind. What P. G. Wodehouse would have described as ‘not very clubbable’.
Much of my life has been spent as an outside observer of human social agglomerations rather than as a member of them. This separation makes it difficult to care about one football team over another or even one country over another. I am proud to be Scottish but no more so than a Swede is of being Swedish or a Chinese guy is of being Chinese. In matters of ‘Us versus Them’ I have been ‘Them’ often enough that the differences usually seem confected and meaningless.
Despite the flaws in my version of this story it should be told, not because I have any great insight but because some things have to be brought into the light. Some events require that witness be borne.
In the nineteen eighties I was a young ski instructor with a small talent for cross country ski racing. One autumn I got the chance to stay at a lodge in Norway and train for several weeks in the mountains. Early snow and the opportunity to learn from better skiers as well as the sheer adventure of hopping onto a ferry to Oslo made the decision to go a no-brainer. I packed up and headed North.
A couple of weeks after arriving the lodge was taken over by the Royal Marines as a base for a three-week mountain and arctic warfare course. As well as the Brits there were a few Dutch Marines and a couple of Australian SAS personnel. The previously quiet building was suddenly filled with noisy, farting, joking men who drank to excess and spent their free time flirting with the female staff.
During the day they did their own thing and our paths tended not to cross but at night they ran the cheapest bar in Scandinavia and the place was heaving with marines and a regular supply of local dignitaries taking advantage of the duty-free bar where they could pick up a bottle of whisky for three pounds sterling rather than the standard local price which was over thirty quid. They had games nights and a talent show and a good time was generally had by all. I wasn’t drinking but it was fun to bounce around in such madcap company and I was enjoying the experience.
And then the fun stopped.
One evening I passed a couple of police cars and an ambulance as I entered the lodge. Inside, the place was unusually quiet. Banter and blared conversation replaced by a modest hum.
As I walked across the foyer two uncomfortable looking Norwegian police walked towards me headed for the front door. Behind them came a couple of paramedics, a bearded man, a crying woman wrapped in a blanket with another two cops bringing up the rear.
They took an age to pass by and exit. Their footsteps loud on the stone floor. When they went, conversation resumed but it was quieter and more earnest, more frightened even, than the norm.
One of the lodge staff filled me in on the day’s events.
After a day on the hill five of the marines had gone to the sauna. Inside was one of the kitchen staff enjoying her day off. As is the norm in Norway she was in the sauna nude. At some point not long after the men arrived, they took it in turns to rape her. Once they had all had their turn, some, if not all of them raped her again, this time anally.
When she passed across the foyer to the ambulance, she was being taken to the nearest hospital. The bearded man was her husband, who also worked at the lodge, and the police were nervous because they didn’t know if they were going to get out without being attacked by the soldiers in residence.
I never saw her again and don’t know what became of her. What I do know is that none of the perpetrators was arrested or punished by the law for their actions.
The sauna was quickly cleaned up. Statements were given that claimed some of the men involved were elsewhere. Others claimed that the sex was consensual. Many witnesses refused to speak to the police entirely so as not to ‘grass up’ their comrades, even inadvertently.
For such a busy lodge it suddenly seemed as if nobody had been in that afternoon.
The men involved, the rapists, completed the course. Received whatever awards and pay that went with the achievement and carried on with their lives and careers. The bar was shut down. Officially it was felt that alcohol had been a contributing factor to what the officers referred to as ‘The Incident’ and so the supply was cut off.
Visits by local dignitaries also dried up though this was less lamented by the men than was the loss of the bar. The only visit in the days following was from two staff at the British embassy.
In the end no case was pursued through the courts in Norway or the UK. I was told later that a compensation payment had been agreed between the ministry of defence and the victim’s lawyers but have no way of knowing how true this is or how much money was involved. It wasn’t likely to be enough though and not one penny of it came from those responsible. It was all paid from Ministry of Defence funds.
So. . . Tribalism.
Because of the superiority afforded by support of their tribe, five men, professional soldiers, felt, rightly as it turned out, that they could get away with brutalising a helpless woman.
Once the crime was committed, tribal omerta made the collection of evidence extremely difficult. Because senior officers wanted the reputation of the tribe kept clean, they were willing to support a group of gang rapists within their ranks, hush things up and not push for a public prosecution or even a military trial.
The British government of the day helped by funding the cover up and compensation using public money. The pain and fear of the victim, the effect this would have on her life and relationships was just another ancillary factor to be priced into the cost of protecting the tribe. Those who disapproved, and there were several, did so quietly and without publicly rocking the boat. A cowardly approach which also protected the tribe.
It's clear what members get from the tribe; support, protection and a sense of belonging are not the least of it and much of what happens in tribal groups is positive but when it goes toxic who protects the outsiders? As society develops and we become less hierarchical, less traditional there are going to be newer groups emerging and more outsiders. This is not a problem which is going away.
If the only difference between lawful authority and a street gang is that one wears a uniform and the other doesn’t then we are in trouble.
As stated at the beginning this is not the tale for those who like happy endings.
Thanks for reading.
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