7 JULY 2007, Page 11

Mind your language

'What's this?' exclaimed my husband as we came round the corner between the Foreign Office and the Treasury on the edge of St James's Park. It was the memorial to the 202 people killed in the Bali bombing in 2002. London has acquired a sprinkling of memorials recently — to the women of the second world war in Whitehall, to animals in war in Park Lane, to the Battle of Britain on the Embankment The Bali memorial has been there since last autumn, although my husband has only just noticed. It was planned as a 'permanent memorial to the loss of so many innocent people', in the words of the victims' group that sponsored it, and the inscription with the names of the dead makes reference to loss of innocent life.

Those killed were of course innocent, in the sense that they were not combatants. Not that combatants are necessarily guilty. Nor that it is allowable to murder people even if they are not innocent.

Our ideas of the connotations of the word innocent are not sharp. It certainly means 'not guilty', but it can also imply a lack of experience of evil-doing. The Innocents that Herod massacred are the archetype of inexperienced innocents. Innocentius was taken as a Christian name, and the first of 13 popes of that name had the misfortune to see Rome conquered by the Goths under Alaric in 410.

Lambs and the 'simple' are innocent, for they are guiltless, but there is also in them an element of harmlessness — that the innocent will do us no harm. The popular brand of fruit drinks called Innocent suggests both guiltlessness and harmlessness by using a halo on its label. In this sense the word is related to innocuous, through the Latin nocere, 'to harm'.

Terrorists refuse to see their victims as innocent. One of those convicted last year of plotting to blow up the Ministry of Sound nightclub had said, 'No one can even turn around and say, "Oh they were innocent" — those slags dancing around.'

The thinking was that, since nightclubbers displayed Western decadence, they deserved to die. The Bali victims, by contrast, were held in some way to be allies of Australia in its military intervention in an Islamic country. 'We had warned Australia about its participation in Afghanistan,' said a taperecording attributed to Osama bin Laden after the bombing.

As it happened, only 88 of the 202 killed were Australians, but Islamist terrorism does not act as a just judge of individual responsibility. In the Dar al-Harb, the land of war, there are no innocent bystanders.

Dot Wordsworth