Call and Response: Roxane Gay Reflects on Tragedy

Every day, terrible things happen in the world. Every damn day too many people die or suffer for reasons that defy comprehension. A bomb goes off in a market and thirty men, women, and children are killed. A man walks into a birthday party and kills his ex-wife and all her siblings in front of their child before he kills himself. The water in an African country disappears leaving people starving and thirsty. An epidemic of a disease long-cured by modern medicine sweeps, relentlessly, through an island nation already ravaged by natural disasters. A woman is raped by police officers and those officers are acquitted and she now has to live with the knowledge that she is not safe, not even from law enforcement. A large retailer goes bankrupt putting 10,000 people out of work. Two wars continue to rage unceasingly. And. And. And. And. Every day, terrible things happen in the world. It is overwhelming to try and make sense of any of it, to know how to feel about any of it, to be able to articulate those feelings, to express compassion when there is such a gaping, desperate need for it.

In Norway, in Oslo, in the city where the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded, on a Friday afternoon, a thirty-two year-old man triggered a bomb at the government headquarters, killing seven people. On the small island of Utoya that same man killed seventy-six people, most of them teenagers. Children hid behind rocks and fled into the water and pretended to be dead so they might have a chance to survive, to live a day beyond the unbearable day they were living. There is fear and there is fear. The scale of the tragedy is incomprehensible. The tragedy, like most tragedies, tests the limits of language. There is now a before and after. That’s what the news tells us. There are pictures of the building, decimated, the architecture’s broken skeleton revealed, the dust and debris, the wounded, the dead, the mourning, the mourned, candles melting, wilting flowers wrapped in clear plastic, handwritten signs trying to properly express the depths of a grief that, perhaps, cannot be expressed.

All too often, suffering exists in a realm beyond vocabulary so we navigate that realm awkwardly, fumbling for the right words, hoping we can somehow approximate an understanding of matters that should never have to be understood by anyone in any place in the world.

The man who committed these crimes has blond hair and blue eyes. These details are shared repeatedly in a litany of disbelief. Too many people expected the perpetrator of this crime to have brown skin and a Qu’ran because we need to believe that heinous crimes have only one face, that there is only one brand of extremism—that of the Other. This is the world we now live in. We wield accusations without reflection or humanity. We forget compassion. We pretend we are somehow different from those we otherwise condemn.

The man with blond hair and blue eyes has a Wikipedia page now. A compendium of knowledge is being compiled about Anders Behring Breivik. We know his beliefs and his taste in music and what his parents do for a living. We know he has an exhaustive manifesto he worked on for nine years, some of which he took directly from the Unabomber. We have seen him posing with a big gun, wearing a wetsuit. We have seen his face—his wide, open face, the youth in his features.  We know he is extreme in his beliefs and that there must be hatred in his heart. We know he is crazy. He must hate. He must be crazy. We need to believe he is hateful and crazy because it is unfathomable to believe a man of sound mind and body could or would perpetrate such a crime.

Crime is a weak word, a weak, weak word. Those five letters cannot accurately convey what is, more accurately, an atrocity. Even that word does not suffice. The tragedy exceeds our vernacular in so many ways.

The king of Norway said, “I remain convinced that the belief in freedom is stronger than fear. I remain convinced in the belief of an open Norwegian democracy and society. I remain convinced in the belief in our ability to live freely and safely in our own country.” Tragedy. Call. Compassion. Response. He chose grace. He found a better vocabulary with which to respond amidst a suffering that defies vocabulary.

We all have the capacity to do hurtful things but we differ from one another in terms of scale—how much we can hurt others, how far we will go to make a statement about our beliefs, how remorseful we might feel in the aftermath of committing a terrible act. Most of us, if we are lucky, will only commit petty hurtful acts, the kinds of hurt that can be forgiven. The man who committed this atrocity in Norway has a capacity to hurt few of us will ever understand. He turned himself in. He confessed to his crimes. He wants to explain himself. I don’t know what that means but surely it means something. It has to mean something. I wonder if he was scared before he took so many lives, before he created such unprecedented destruction. I wonder how he became the kind of man who could shoot children at point blank range, who could be so careless with human lives. I wonder if he is sickened by what he did. I wonder how he feels knowing he lives in a country where he will likely not be sentenced to life in prison, knowing that even in the face of what he did, he will not be put to death. I wonder if he is grateful, if he is humbled, if he is staggered by the humanity of his people. Tragedy. Call. Humility. Response?

Oz was an HBO series about a maximum-security prison. Very bad things happened in Oz but the show was endlessly watchable—the shameless depictions of violence, often sexual in nature, Christopher Meloni, the sense that we were gaining an understanding of what it is like to live in a cage, seeing the very blurred lines between prison minders and the imprisoned. I am very much against the death penalty, have been for many years. I did not realize how passionately I felt about the death penalty until I watched an episode of Oz where a prisoner was scheduled to be executed. Oz was just a television show, but as this man was led to the execution chamber, as his head was shaved, as he was strapped into the chair, scared and confused, I started crying. I felt so silly for crying, so very silly, but I wasn’t crying for a character on a television show. I was crying for the men and women who have been executed for their crimes, for the men and women languishing on death row, for a society that has no idea how to punish atrocious crimes without taking a human life. On Friday night, my on again off again boyfriend called from many states away. He is politically conservative though I’d like to think I’ve worn him down on certain matters. He asked, “Have you seen the news?” He asked, “Do you still believe the death penalty is wrong?” Tragedy. Call. Dial tone. Response.

We know much of what there is to know about Anders Behring Breivik. We know very little about his victims, who they were, what they wanted for their lives, how they loved and were loved, who they loved, how and by whom they will be mourned, what they felt in their last moments, if they suffered. We only know seventy-six people were killed in one day by one man. Their killer is alive. There is a great deal of cruelty in this state of affairs.

I’m not a saint. I will not shed a tear for Anders Behring Breivik but I do not wish him dead. I will try to think of him with the compassion he was unable to offer the seventy-six people he murdered. I will likely fail in this. Still, I do not wish him dead. I do not believe his death is an appropriate punishment. I do not believe there is such a thing as an appropriate punishment for what that man did.

This is the modern age. When tragedies occur, we take to Twitter and Facebook and blogs to share our thoughts and feelings. We do this maybe, just maybe, to know we are not alone in our confusion or grief or sorrow or to believe we have a voice in what happens in the world.

We take to these tools of the modern age and there are those among us who, in the wake of tragedy, point fingers or proselytize or use humor as a means of distancing themselves from the emotional discomfort of knowing we are rarely as safe as we hope to be. We are rarely safe from knowing that every day terrible things happen everywhere. Tragedy. Call. Twitter. Response. Others use this time to take a political stance, to speculate as to why blond-haired, blue-eyed men aren’t now being profiled in airports around the world. There is almost a certain glee in these kinds of statements. At a time like this, tragedy is used for political posturing. Righteousness gets in the way of what is right. Righteousness gets in the way of valid observations that might be better shared more carefully, more thoughtfully, under different circumstances. The tools of the modern age afford us many privileges but they also cost us the privilege of time and space and distance to properly think through tragedy, to take a deep breath, to feel, to care. Tragedy. Call. Heart. Response. Tragedy. Call. Mind. Response.

There is a girl who was a woman but really, she was a girl. She was a girl because she was only twenty-seven, only lived a third of a life. She had a voice like fine whiskey and cigarettes or at least what I imagine fine whiskey and cigarettes might sound like. She had a voice that made me think of dark, secret nightclubs where you need to know a guy to gain admittance, where musicians gather closely on a small stage and play their instruments for hours in a haze of sweat and cologne, booze and smoke, while a singer, this girl woman singer, stands at the microphone giving those gathered the exceptional gift of her voice.

The year her second album came out was the year of the Halloween dedicated to this girl woman. Everywhere I looked, women and some men wore their hair (or a wig) long and black with a bouffant on top and they lined their eyes blackly with that distinctive angle at the corner of each eye and they drew tattoos on their bare arms and sang the chorus of her most popular song. They tried to make me go to rehab. Call. I said No, No, No. Response. That’s why we care. She was in our lives and our ears and our heads and our hair.

The girl woman singer died in her flat, alone in her bed.  Too many people said, “It was to be expected,” because we knew this girl who was a woman but really she was a girl. We knew she had problems and she did not have the luxury the rest of us do to handle our problems privately, with dignity. She was a mess. So what? We are all stinking messes, every last one of us, or we once were messes and found our way out or we are trying to find our way out of a mess, scratching, reaching. We knew she had demons that were bigger than her, demons she tried to fight or she didn’t, we can’t possibly know. Her struggles were documented and parodied, celebrated and ridiculed. Celebrity. Call. Gossip. Response. We have seen the pictures of this girl woman in the street, barefoot, in the street, her midriff bare and swollen, in the street, her makeup smeared, her unforgettable hair, stringy, pasted to her pale face, her body being carried from her home in a red body bag. There was no privacy for her, not even in death. That is a tragedy too.

I love her music and listen to it regularly. I always hoped she might survive herself, hoped she would give her adoring fans more of her voice, hoping she would give herself the blessing of a long life. I heard she died from my best friend who sent me a text message and we commiserated about what a shame it was for a girl woman to die at the age of twenty-seven. It is a different kind of devastating to think about the life she will never know, about those gifts that come with more years of living than the girl singer was afforded. I do not wonder about the cause of her death. The how of her demise isn’t my business. And yet. When I first heard of her death, I wondered if she died alone. I wondered if she was scared. There is fear and there is fear. Now, I wonder if she knew real happiness in her short life. I wonder if she felt loved or knew peace. She was someone’s daughter. She was someone’s sister. We know her father found out while he was on a plane. He did not have any kind of privacy to make sense of surviving his child. The death of a child is unbearable and suffocating and now, two parents have to try and cope with something the human heart is ill equipped to withstand. Tragedy. Call. Broken heart. Response.

This is the modern age. When tragedies occur, we take to Twitter and Facebook and blogs to share our thoughts and feelings. We do this maybe, just maybe, to know we are not alone in our confusion or grief or sorrow or to believe we have a voice in what happens in the world.

I followed many conversations about what happened in Norway on Friday and the death of Amy Winehouse on Saturday. Too many of those conversations tried to conflate the two events, tried to create some kind of hierarchy of tragedy, grief, call, response. There was so much judgment, so much interrogation of grief—how dare we mourn a singer, an entertainer, a girl woman who struggled with addiction as if the life of an addict is somehow less worthy a life, as if we are not entitled to mourn unless the tragedy happens to the right kind of people. How dare we mourn a singer when across an ocean, seventy-six people are dead? We are asked these questions as if we only have the capacity to mourn one tragedy at a time, as if we must measure the depth and reach of a tragedy before deciding how to respond, as if compassion and kindness are finite resources we must use sparingly. We cannot put these two tragedies on a chart and connect them with a straight line. We cannot understand these tragedies neatly. Life is a mess.

Death is a tragedy whether it is the death of one girl woman in London or seventy-six men, women, and children in Norway. We know this but perhaps it needs to be said over and over again so we do not forget.

I have never considered compassion a finite resource. I would not want to live in a world where such was the case.

Tragedy. Call. Great. Small. Compassion. Response. Compassion. Response.

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