Once again, an individual has caused mass death and destruction, and sent a wave of fear circling the globe. Once again, people are lamenting the world’s ever-increasing insanity. And once again, a separate incident — specifically, the death of a celebrity — has occurred almost simultaneously, seeming to compete for attention with the larger event. Is it possible to step away from our reflex reactions? Can we make sense of any of it?
The murder of seventy-six people in Norway this past Friday has shocked us, because we never imagined it could happen there. That’s always what we think following one of these attacks. “Not there,” we say, even as the people living in those places cry, “Not here.”
By now we should have realized that these assaults have no right or appropriate place. They happen where and when someone, or some small group, decides they will happen. Terrorism is not new. The use of sudden and brutal violence has probably been around since humans first appeared. What is new is the explosive power available to anyone who wants it, and the tendency toward attacking large crowds that become inviting targets just because of their size. In centuries past, political leaders were assassinated or kidnapped because of the office they held. When Empress Elisabeth of Austria was stabbed to death by an Italian anarchist in 1898, many people were saddened, just as they were three years later when US President William McKinley was fatally shot. But neither incident would have caused the average citizen to think, “Uh oh. I could be next.”
Today, people are killed by the hundreds as they sit in their offices, in restaurants, or on buses. The murders are random and unpredictable. There is no answer to the inevitable question, “Why them?” The violence seems to be related to some cause, but there is often no connection between that cause and the victims. The terrorist decides, on a whim, who will die.
The day after the massacre in Oslo, a singer named Amy Winehouse was found dead in London after years of abusing herself with alcohol and drugs. Whether or not it was a suicide, Winehouse clearly hastened her own death. Troubled as she must have been, however, she had also been well on her way to a long and successful music career.
My instinctive response to Saturday’s development was, “Here we go again.” In our culture, news concerning a celebrity is somehow more important than just about anything else that may be happening. I remember watching CNN a few years ago, on the day an earthquake had struck central Italy, collapsing a school and killing twenty-six students and a teacher. The story got fifteen seconds of coverage, followed immediately by twenty minutes of discussion about Princess Diana’s butler and some items he was accused of stealing.
So what is it? Are our priorities that confused? Do we deem certain lives to be more important than others?
I’m not sure how to rank our priorities, but we do seem to place people on a scale of significance. A town hit by a tsunami nine thousand miles away doesn’t affect us as much as a similar disaster that happens nine hundred miles away. When we see a headline that reads, “Boat Sinks, 400 Dead,” we’re alarmed until we notice that it happened in North Korea, or southern Chile. Then we feel bad for a few seconds and go back to eating lunch.
The numbers also affect our response. Fifty thousand human beings buried under earthquake rubble is incomprehensible. We distance ourselves from such tragedy because we don’t know how to cope with it. We may pull out our checkbooks and send a donation, but that’s as close as we’ll get. A single death, especially that of a celebrity, is easier to relate to. We know Amy Winehouse’s name and what she looked like — and if you didn’t before, you do now. Seventy-six people in Norway are dead for no other reason than that they were in a spot their killer chose to attack. We don’t know their names, and even if we hear them tomorrow, we won’t remember them two weeks from now.
Were the deaths in Norway preventable? No. We can’t predict insane acts committed by someone whose previous behavior registers as normal. We might look back after the fact and say, “We should have seen this coming.” But in truth, we couldn’t have. A few people bent on destruction will always call the shots, because only they know what they have planned. Was the single death in London preventable? It’s impossible to know, especially before the actual cause has been determined. For some, life and death become equally appealing, and short of watching them around the clock, there’s no way to know what they’re doing. We’re stunned by both events, not because they’re so uncommon — unfortunately, they aren’t. But they represent yet another reminder that even as most of us try to elude death for as long as we can, others seem to pursue it for themselves, or work to inflict it on others. There appears to be no sense to make of any of it.
But here’s a thought I’ve been having. About a month ago, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge visited the small island province where I live. As in all of the other places they visited in Canada and the US, a huge crowd arrived hours early to catch a ten-second glimpse of the royal newlyweds. Picture it: thousands of people lining the streets to wave and applaud and hold signs and offer gifts to these two young people who, simply by virtue of their birth and relationship, are lavished with attention and love wherever they go. But how much attention and love can anyone absorb? Throw buckets of water on someone until they’re soaked and any subsequent buckets are pretty much wasted. Would it possibly do someone else more good to have a taste of that attention? What if, instead of celebrating the presence of two royal strangers, we all made a little more of an effort to celebrate the people we’re with all the time? Or the people we interact with at the grocery store or the bank? What if we spread the love around a little bit, instead of concentrating so much of it on people who are already getting more than their share? It won’t stop terrorism, and it may not save any individual from death. But it’s almost guaranteed to make someone’s life happier, at least for a moment.
If a few of them can cause so much heartache, couldn’t many of us cause just as much joy?