Walking back from the polling station yesterday afternoon in the drizzle, past the familiar faces and houses of our village, I found myself trying to imagine what it would be like to live in Damascus where, aged 61, I would never have had the experience of voting in a free, democratic election; where I would have lived my adult life keeping my thoughts to myself for fear of informers or the secret police; and where now, today, I would most probably be living in real terror of arrest and torture, if I hadn’t already been carted off.
But the thought that really gnawed was this: where, knowing what faced me, would I find the courage to go out on the streets and protest? It seems to me that those thousands of ordinary people across the Arab world, and particularly those in Syria, who have recently joined the crowds knowing that they may simply not make it home that evening, that they may be picked off by snipers or mown down by tanks, or rounded up later and taken to some hideous secret interrogation centre – these ordinary people are quite extraordinarily brave.
Having never felt the resentment and anger they must feel, I don’t think I can really understand where that bravery comes from. It must be a huge rage, a consuming sense of injustice, that will make a peaceable person expose themselves to the possibility of extreme physical or psychological pain, or even death. And perhaps in voicing these thoughts I’m also acknowledging the fear that, if it came to it, I would turn out to be a coward, unable to find that courage.
I imagine that anger of this kind must have a quickening effect, a sharpening of the sense of being alive. Perhaps it even promotes a feeling of invulnerability, and certainly there must be a sense of solidarity, even of some kind of collective safety, while you’re in the crowd. But when the bullets begin to fly, or the door’s kicked in at three in the morning, doesn’t even the most righteous indignation yield to weak-kneed terror?
Last weekend, under a cloudless sky, I spent a morning at the magnificent new Culloden Moor visitor centre. The battle still casts a faint shadow over Scottish politics, more than two hundred and fifty years later, and I was reminded that for years afterwards the Hanoverians ran a kind of police state in the Highlands, in which actual and suspected Jacobites were ruthlessly hunted down and normal civil liberties – including the right to speak one’s language of birth – were brutally suppressed. I was so caught up in the drama of those far off events, and their wonderfully vivid interpretation, that I didn’t think of Syria at the time, nor, oddly enough, the fact that we were less than a week away from our own election.
But I see the connections and parallels clearly now, and it reminds me just how fortunate we are to live in a democracy; also how vital it is that we lead politically engaged lives, that we stay informed, that we vote and that we teach our children to vote. That way, with luck, our courage may never be put to the test.