BOSTON — “Unjustified and unjustifiable,” said the British prime minister, David Cameron, of the events of Jan. 30, 1972, in Northern Ireland when British troops opened fire on civilian protesters, killing 14.
The release of the official government report, after 38 years, still had the power to stir deep emotions concerning the event that has long ago passed into history as “Bloody Sunday.”
The classic “fusillade,” when troops open fire on unarmed crowds, has always had the power to generate the kind of outrage that can change history, and Bloody Sunday in Londonderry was no exception. From that moment on it was clear to everybody concerned that military force was not going to halt the unrest among Her Majesty’s Catholic citizens in the embattled province. In the end only compromise and the withdrawal of troops brought the fragile peace that Northern Ireland enjoys today.
Nothing inflames passions more than mostly unarmed civilians being killed by soldiers, and no matter how bad the situation is using excessive force, especially when troops are deployed against one’s own citizens, is likely to make things worse.
Think of March 5, 1770, when British troops, the reviled, red-uniformed “Lobster Backs,” opened fire on an unruly mob of colonials on Boston’s King Street. On that day ruffians began taunting British soldiers, part of a two-regiment force that had been brought into the city to restore order to a city seething with revolutionary sentiments. The soldiers opened fire, killing three and wounding eight — far less than were killed by British troops in Londonderry 202 years later.
Unlike “Bloody Sunday,” a court found that the provocation was so great that their able lawyer, future president John Adams, was able to get most of the soldiers acquitted. But the “Boston Massacre,” as that fusillade came to be called, marked a downturn in relations between Britain and 13 of its American colonies that ended in the revolutionary war and separation from Britain.
In 1919 in Amritsar, India, a British general by the name of Reginald Dyer ordered his troops to open fire with machine guns on an Indian mob of demonstrators also seeking independence from Britain. The fusillade took place in an enclosed space called the Jalianwala Bagh. When the firing stopped, 379 Indians lay dead. The mob was by no means peaceful, but the excessive use of force focused and inflamed nationalist sentiments to a degree from which Anglo-Indian relations never recovered until India was free from British rule almost four decades later.
Another Bloody Sunday took place on Jan. 22, 1905, when a crowd of workers peacefully marched to the great square in front of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, then the capital of Russia. They were singing hymns and carrying pictures of their czar. Awaiting them was a line of soldiers who opened fire, killing hundreds. The incident proved to be the catalyst that forced the czar to abandon centuries of unchallenged autocracy and convene Russia’s first parliament. But the bond between the Russian people and the throne was irrevocably broken, and 12 years later the monarchy was swept away in a wave of violence that made 1905’s uprising seem sanguine.
The events at Kent State, when national guard soldiers fired on unarmed students demonstrating against the U.S. invasion of Cambodia just 40 years ago, didn’t lead to revolution in this country, but it hardened public opinion against America’s role in Indochina and made it more difficult to continue the war.
Israel’ recent storming of a Turkish flagged ship trying to break the blockade of Gaza, resulting in nine civilian deaths, had some of the same force to influence events. Israel claimed that both its blockade and its actions at sea were justifiable and legal, but the excessive use of force made those claims irrelevant. The international uproar, and the attention the incident focused on the plight of Gaza, forced Israel to at least loosen its iron grip on Gaza and let more materials through.
It was not lost on those with long memories that the British had tried to enforce a similar blockade after World War II to limit Jewish immigration into the Holy Land. But a ship, renamed the Exodus, filled with Holocaust survivors, tried to break the blockade. The attempt did not succeed. The Exodus was boarded by the British navy with loss of Jewish life, and the passengers were sent back to Europe. But the incident made it clear that the British position in Palestine was untenable, just as Bloody Sunday did in Ireland.