"Politics is sometimes hard. You are right in front of me." The German Chancellor's viral encounter with a young Palestinian woman likely to be is a disturbing, pregnant piece of telly. I've been trying to work out why it has been preying on my mind today.
Angela Merkel has been criticised for being cold in her response to the young lady's gut-wrenchingly sad question about the precariousness of life in Germany as a refugee without leave to remain. I don't think this is fair. Merkel is no Bill Clinton. She doesn't have the former U.S. president's extrovert powers to project sympathy to an audience. She is direct, categorical, sympathetic -- but unyielding. And it is this sympathy, I think, which makes the encounter so uncomfortable. The allegation of coldness actually obscures what makes the exchange difficult to watch.
If Merkel had been stern, and glacial, and had rebuffed the child's cry of distress unmoved, we might think of her as inhumane. But to be empathetic to the individual, and yet immoveable on the rules which will destroy their lives - that's one of the most unsettling characteristics of a legalistic, rule-bound way of viewing the world.
It is a problem of universals and particulars. We meet this in law all the time, and in teaching too. The likeable student who screws up their final degree exams. The charismatic individual who finds themselves on the duff end of the law, whose sufferings you feel for. I've often suspected that being strung up by a sour, hanging judge is in some sense less disturbing than by the quiet, polite, compassionate jurist who doesn't want you to die but diligently does their duty. They feel twinges of mercy, but set it aside.
Mhairi Black's recent Commons début offers another stinging example of the clash of universals and particulars. What seems reasonable in the abstract in a Whitehall Work and Pensions office, drafting sanctions rules, becomes heartbreaking and unendurable when you encounter the frail, broken individual who suffers unjustly under their effects. You are right in front of me.
George Orwell gave another memorable example, in Looking Back on the Spanish War. He thought the vignette inconsequential. I'm not so sure. Those warring impulses, between universal justice and mercy to the individual, right in front of you -- they run right through our politics and society, like blood through our veins.
Early one morning another man and I had gone out to snipe at the Fascists in the trenches outside Huesca. Their line and ours here lay three hundred yards apart, at which range our aged rifles would not shoot accurately, but by sneaking out to a spot about a hundred yards from the Fascist trench you might, if you were lucky, get a shot at someone through a gap in the parapet.
Unfortunately the ground between was a flat beet field with no cover except a few ditches, and it was necessary to go out while it was still-dark and return soon after dawn, before the light became too good. This time no Fascists appeared, and we stayed too long and were caught by the dawn. We were in a ditch, but behind us were two hundred yards of flat ground with hardly enough cover for a rabbit. We were still trying to nerve ourselves to make a dash for it when there was an uproar and a blowing of whistles in the Fascist trench. Some of our aeroplanes were coming over.
At this moment, a man presumably carrying a message to an officer, jumped out of the trench and ran along the top of the parapet in full view. He was half-dressed and was holding up his trousers with both hands as he ran. I refrained from shooting at him. It is true that I am a poor shot and unlikely to hit a running man at a hundred yards, and also that I was thinking chiefly about getting back to our trench while the Fascists had their attention fixed on the aeroplanes.
Still, I did not shoot partly because of that detail about the trousers. I had come here to shoot at ‘Fascists’; but a man who is holding up his trousers isn't a ‘Fascist’, he is visibly a fellow-creature, similar to yourself, and you don't feel like shooting at him. What does this incident demonstrate? Nothing very much, because it is the kind of thing that happens all the time in all wars.