Editorial: Things that really matter can't be stolen

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When something precious is lost, it is well to be reminded of what really matters. In the week since the theft of Victoria Crosses from the Waiouru Army Museum, it has been hard to put the crime into perspective.

In one sense, it is hard to imagine a more despicable act. The crosses were pinned on the chests of men whose bravery stands in sharp contrast to that of the sneak thieves who entered the museum through a fire escape at the dead of night, went to the Valour Alcove, smashed the glass and took about 100 medals.

They were smart enough, it seems, to avoid an alarm, security cameras and patrols. It was a carefully planned raid with a precise purpose. Not all the medals there were taken. Those they removed included the two VCs awarded to Captain Charles Upham in World War II.

It is hard to imagine the moral vacuum in those who conceived and carried out this crime. They were defiling a shrine to public heroes, robbing the nation of irreplaceable objects these men had held, worn and kept. But what always hurts most in this sort of offence to a nation is the willfulness of the injury.

The thieves knew exactly how much the medals meant to us, and not in monetary terms. Whatever sums the thieves believe they can obtain on the blackest of markets, the medals were priceless to the public.

It was painful enough when Captain Upham's daughters wanted to put his VCs on sale last year. The Government quickly and popularly decreed the medals could not leave the country. Happily, the Imperial War Museum in London gave the family their price, using a grant provided by descendants of Captain Upham's wartime commanding officer, Sir Howard Kippenberger, and lent the medals for display at Waiouru.

Nothing has emerged from the police efforts of the past week to encourage hope the medals will be recovered soon, if at all. They have probably been stolen to order and passed to a collector whose purpose cannot be imagined.

They surely cannot be displayed anywhere without risk of detection or offered for sale on any network that ethical collectors might know.

Britain's leading collector of VCs, Lord Michael Ashcroft, who has 140 in his possession, has offered a $200,000 reward for information about those stolen from Waiouru.

He says robbery on the scale has not happened before, possibly because British museums commonly keep the medals safely out of sight and put replicas on display.

Waiouru rightly chose to display the real thing. That is what people wanted to see. And it is hard to criticise the museum's security. The thieves triggered an alarm and a security guard arrived within minutes. That was long enough for the deed to be done and the thieves to escape.

They left enough forensic evidence to give the officer in charge of the police investigation some hope of identifying them, but that is not to say he is confident of recovering the loot, which they will have passed on.

It is probably time to remind ourselves that the medals are only pieces of metal. The meaning they carry cannot be stolen. The soldiers who earned them remain celebrated in the Valour Alcove and in the national memory.

And there are, of course, worse crimes; every assault on a human being is much worse. On the scale of crimes against the nation, this was not terrorism or irreversible destruction of a landmark, historical artefact or ancient tree.

The medals still exist somewhere, with the well-known names carved on them.

This is not a national disaster; the theft will be simply a small, sad footnote to the inspiring stories of courage, service, modesty and commitment that brought these men, and their country, honours that nobody can take away.

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