The stories we tell about tragedy

Belfast City Hall
36 murders got reported in one night’s news this week. 36 life stories have ended. But what other stories get attached to them? We heard news of 15 killings at a school in Germany, followed by another 14 dead  in the Southern USA. Then add the daily casualty count from Iraq and Afghanistan as listed on the nightly NewsHour-4  soldiers killed-and then comes reports of mass protests on the streets of Belfast and Derry over the deaths of  three people, two British soldiers and one PSNI policeman. Thirty six deaths from around the world in one bulletin. But the differences in the stories they tell are dramatic.

If the appropriate reaction was to be gauged by sheer weight of numbers, then  there should be thousands on the streets of Berlin and Washington protesting the senseless deaths of innocent students and family members because someone with a grudge got a gun.  Grudges are easy to obtain, but they become lethal when those who nurture them get an armory as easy as walking into a McDonalds for a burger.Yet Berlin is quiet and Washington is silent. The mass protests happen only  where the death toll is the least, Northern Ireland, because these deaths  threaten to resurrect that old story of bloody conflict, a story that Northern Ireland has decided most determinedly belongs to the past. Those who want to re-ignite the secular hatreds are yesterday’s men.  The public rise up as one to condemn the criminal acts and console the families who have to relive the story that no longer makes any sense, if it ever did.‘

Senseless killing’ is a term broadly applied, and it describes all these headlines of murder and mayhem, but the isolated acts of lone madmen in Germany or the USA do not tap into any larger narrative. They are in the service of one small, isolated story of enmity and insanity. The deaths will transmit a chain of family stories that will echo down the generations, telling of loss and despair, but ultimately they belong to the human story, that sometimes, people lose it and when any society makes guns as accessible as toys, tragedy is almost inevitable. We don’t let kids play with guns. Why do we let psychopaths?But in Northern Ireland, the murders threaten to add a new chapter to a viral story of unparalleled viciousness, blood feuds, tribal enmities that have been put away at last for the sake of the future.

Like a bush fire in the heat of an Australian summer, these old tales are more easily ignited than extinguished.Northern Ireland, I believe, needs to brand these acts as criminal and deranged and deny them any status as political acts of resistance. They belong to the same story of human insanity that the murders in Germany and the USA reflect. They do not belong to any larger story, they do not have any larger significance unless we decide to interpret them that way. And if their perpetrators insist  that they killed in order to be free, as the Continuity IRA will claim, we need to treat them as insane too, people locked inside a story of their own deranged anger.

The story that we weave around trauma dictates how we will act in response. If 9-11 had been storied as the brazen act of crazy zealots like the NY attacks of 1993 or the Oklahoma City bombings, then we would not have fueled the big story that the terrorists wanted us to tell of them. They were virulently anti-USA, and we took them at their word and embarked on a war that looked to the Muslim world as Anti-Islam. We got sucked into the exact same story that these sick terrorists acted out of. We gave them significance, a larger meaning, made them heroes of Islamic fundamentalism rather than exposing them as fools captive to unholy delusions. President Bush elevated them to martyrdom status in asking “Why do they hate us.?” but that is not a question you ask a paranoid. Paranoids are out to get everyone. Don’t take it personally.The most dangerous kind of attention we can pay to these crazies is to treat their stories as sensible.

The deaths in Germany and the USA were senseless, tragic and random, and they do not deserve any more sense than that. So too in Belfast, these acts were committed to revive that old story, but that story makes no sense anymore, and so their acts do not even deserve the status of terrorism. These people are mad, crazy, criminally insane. That does not make the pain any less, but it makes our response more powerful in totally disqualifying the story that gave these criminals their inner sense of justification. To tell them that their act was meaningless is the ultimate rejection. These were senseless killings and that kind of random insanity should pose no greater threat to a civil and sane society than a horrible air crash or a hurricane.  It happens,  and we deal with it. Humans cannot live long or act effectively without meaning. To even for a minute attach significance where there is none is to feed the very story that sparked the killings. It is not the story the killers tell that matters. What matters is the story we tell about them.

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One Response to The stories we tell about tragedy

  1. Although Iraq has made remarkable progress toward stability, the commitment problem persists.

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