Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Tragedy, avoidance and the 'why'

An out-of-control bin lorry crashes through a crowded Glasgow street, snuffing out unsuspecting lives. Christmas shoppers, everyday folk, lost in a cruel instant. We shudder at the thought, witnesses, helpful and helpless, now trying to allay the shocking images from their minds. And, as the background stories and personal testaments emerge, people gather in silent displays of sadness and respect.

It's always touching to see the very natural process of communal grief and kindly remembrance, an assuring reminder of the essential compassions we hold deeply as human beings.

We simply identify, showing intuitive empathy for the victims, imagining their families' ordeal.

Some have suggested a particular 'Glaswegian pulling together'. Perhaps. But the essential inclination of people to help and care in such situations is surely universal. 

And yet the 'where', 'when' and 'why' questions still perplex.

How, we ask, could such a thing happen here, of all places? A seemingly safe environment. That's always a relative notion, of course: more people, more vehicles, more activity, more likelihood of tragic incidents.  Even after the helicopter which crashed through the roof of a Glasgow pub last year, there's still little cause to think that such seemingly bizarre things will occur in our apparently 'ordered' locale. Yet, how complacent might we be, at large, to such realities? 

Though a terrible event, the bin truck tragedy was treated as a 'standard road accident' by the emergency services. Many others occur daily, often with similar multiple fatalities. That kind of news seems almost dismally routine by comparison, our  responses, in turn, seemingly more 'accepting'. We appear almost inured to such reports, regarding even major motorway pile-ups as an 'inevitable' consequence of modern living, rather than a global epidemic.

The 'where' of fatality and tragedy thus suggests wider issues of emotional closeness and distance. It's perhaps natural that we grieve more painfully for a close relative or loved one than a stranger in a distant place, affected as we are by immediate familial feelings and proximate relationships.

Thus could those far from the devastating Boxing Day tsunami ten years ago still comprehend the horror, feel deep empathy, still show generous support, while always comfortably knowing that it didn't happen 'here'. As the search continues for victims of the appalling AirAsia plane crash off the Indonesian coast, we might presently be feeling that same basic human, if still distanced, empathy.

Yet what of our responses to conflict in 'other' places? Although capable of similar human concern, we often seem relatively less shocked and affected over killing in war-torn locations, most often where 'our' leaders unleash so much large-scale suffering. Again, it seems like 'just more dreary news' of death and destruction. But is our consciousness of the 'where' in this case shaped more by routine presentation of 'benign intervention' and 'necessary militarism'?  

The latest mass slaughter of innocents in Gaza this year saw an outpouring of global empathy for suffering civilians. But it still seemed like a qualified emotion, ever-conditioned by loaded media narratives of another 'faraway' and 'intractable' conflict involving 'two warring sides', rather than an occupying state ruthlessly pulverising a besieged people.

There's also the sad timing of tragedy, the 'when' question, and how the sense of loss, as in the Glasgow accident, is seemingly greater around an occasion like Christmas.

Again, it's that very instinctive human empathy in thinking how we would feel losing loved ones at a special festival time when we're supposed to share an extra closeness.

Yet, while invoking the spirit and celebrations of Bethlehem, what acknowledgement of the daily misery going on behind its afflicted, apartheid wall?    

Or what reaction, say, to the 5-year-old child in East Jerusalem shot in the face by an Israeli soldier on Christmas eve? Very little, given that, like so much other anonymous Palestinian suffering, it was never actually deemed newsworthy 'here and now'.

How naturally and sincerely we can feel for others, wherever and whenever they suffer. But, again, so much of that empathy is measured and mediated by how much of the where and when we're actually told. 

And then there's the 'why' question, that more metaphysical point of reflection. The 'why' is often just a form of rhetorical exasperation, a comfort, a useful palliative, requiring no particular answer. But it's still, in our religious-conditioned society, adopted as plaintive enquiry: why, in the 'great scheme' of things, would any God or Grand Designer allow such cruel pain and suffering?

Flowers and candles, prayers and other mitigating spiritual words, provide solace for some. Yet, others ask, isn't it just enough to accept that such events are random? What actual need of the 'why' when the 'laws' of cause and effect suggest a better rationalising exercise? Or is that in itself just another comforting rationale?

There's always scope for more preventative action over public safety, as in recognising the silent crisis of death on the roads, and the corporate influences fuelling it. We may also think and act more carefully as individuals at festive and holiday times when one's guard may be easily down. Yet, for all that, isn't much of life still a game of chance? How fragile and contingent is our very existence?

While things might be done, say, to improve the safer operating of bin lorries in public places, the possibility of general error or other human calamity in life remains. But many other decisions, policies and directives leading to tragic loss could be more readily prevented.

So, beyond the ponderous and the abstract, what more useful employment of the 'why'? How might we better utilise that perennial question, even with spiritual intent?

Here's one thought process: why are situations of suffering that are actually more avoidable the ones that usually result in most tragedy and mayhem?

Consider, in this regard, how serious disincentives to car use - with all its attendant problems of global pollution - could enhance public safety. Thus a more practical rumination: why do commercial interests and the road lobby enjoy such powerful influence over pedestrian interests, better public transport and general social health?

We might usefully posit many other such 'whys'. Just think, for example, how the removal of guns from American streets would sharply improve the potential for safer, more prolonged and happier life. The logical, persistent question to power: why are guns actually allowed on those streets?

Imagine, likewise, if police in that conflicted country stopped 'detaining' black people with such brutal force. Key question: why such state propensity to unwarranted and provocative violence?

Or consider, more broadly, the potential for longer life and greater happiness if elites re-focused their voracious capacity for armed violence towards meaningful forms of peace-seeking diplomacy. Thus: why do we rarely ask why war is wielded so eagerly by 'our' states and their corporate clients?

And, invoking the greatest issue of avoidance and concern: why are corporations being allowed to drive life on our planet to the point of extinction?

This may all seem far removed from the simple act of respect and grieving. Loss through accidents surely differs in context from loss through war and conflict. Yet, in all such cases, the usual 'why' often negates more substantive use of that question in better serving to respect, safeguard and enhance life.

All loss of life, all pain, is to be acknowledged, and, to the fullest possible extent, avoided. Yet it's also helpful to realise the ubiquitous presence and likelihood of human suffering.

I personally incline towards some loose Buddhist perspective on suffering and tragedy as an inevitable part of existence, coupled with a responsive mindfulness which seeks to act, as well as meditate, on practical ways of relieving and minimising it. That's meant more as humble reflection than grand advocacy. But it helps, I think, to move beyond the more futile, if, for some, still comforting use of the 'why'.

At this year's end, we can but show our deepest compassion to all those devastated families, from Gaza to Glasgow and elsewhere, helping us remember both the preciousness of life and the imperative task of trying to best protect it for all.

And in that universal, humanist endeavour, with assuredly more avoidably tragic events to come, may we continue to ask many more of those vital 'why' questions.


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Fine post, John Hilley.

And no, I did not hear about that shooting until I came here.

John Hilley said...

Thanks, and best wishes for 2015.

Rose said...

Well said John - excellent seasonal food for thought.

I was listening an hour ago to a radio interviewer pose the question "How can we stop this from happening?" about the latest boat load of mainly Syrian refugees rescued off Italy. I don't think I heard the interviewee say "Stop bombing and looting other people's countries" although I was listening ever so hard.
Happy New Year John.

John Hilley said...

Many thanks, Rose. Yes, as your example shows, it's all-too typical of how the 'why' is posed, and how it so often serves to circumvent real questions about, and to, big power.

Happy New Year to you, Rose.