Deconstructing disaster

December 9, 2015 by Chelsea Thomeer, Opinions Editor

I am in an apartment in the Netherlands when I hear news of the attacks in Paris. I have come there for the weekend with some friends from my Dublin study abroad program, and one of them gets a text saying that something bad is happening in France. Over the next few days, the devastating details emerge. As we hear about the 130 dead in Paris and the 43 dead in Beirut, about the nightmarish circumstances of the attacks, I feel a growing sense of shock and horror and sadness, all accompanied by a dull despair, the reminder of something I’ve felt before.

I can remember sitting on the gray carpet of my first grade classroom when my teacher received the call that brought her the news of the World Trade Center collapse. I was six. I didn’t understand. I just knew that something very sad had happened, something that changed things.

I can remember, too, sitting on my friend’s couch in high school, watching the news coverage after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The reporter on the screen kept repeating the number of casualties, the statistical facts of all those dead kids. Again, I had the sense that something had shifted, that the world would never be the same again.

I could go on, listing instances of terrorism, attacks, shootings. I was at Williams Previews when I heard that bombs had gone off at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, and I was in Sawyer Library this past summer when I heard that a white man had shot up a South Carolina church. But I don’t remember where I was when I heard about the shooting at a summer camp in Norway or the attack in a Colorado movie theatre or the killing of an unarmed teenager in Missouri. Somehow, the older I get, the less the memories seem to stand out as turning points and the more they start to blur together into one seemingly unending cycle of violence and loss. The morning after the attacks in Paris, two mornings after the attacks in Beirut, I visited the Anne Frank House and stepped through the tiny, tiny rooms where eight people were once forced to hide because other people thought they were less – less than German, less than human. The history of human brutality is a long history.

Is it a future, too? I can’t let a draft of this essay sit for three weeks without having to go back and edit in more recent instances of horrific violence. Two weeks ago, a man shot three and wounded nine at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs. Last Wednesday, two people walked into an office party in San Bernardino, Calif., and killed 14 people. Does it ever end? Can it?

Always, in the wake of each new outbreak of pain, I wonder what I am supposed to do next, what I even can do next, a 20-year-old liberal arts college student trying to scrape together enough credits for a double major in English and political science. I can quote Hannah Arendt on the subject of violence, maybe, or tell you the problems with how Catch 22 addresses war. But do something that has even the tiniest prayer of making a difference, of turning a revolving sphere of violence into a world of peace? How can I, when even world leaders cannot stop bombs from exploding in the capitals of France and Lebanon, when even America’s most powerful politicians can’t seem to agree on a reasonable policy to prevent would-be killers from getting their hands on guns? Me? I am surely incapable. I am utterly at a loss.

Or anyway, I sometimes think so, especially on mornings like the Saturday I stand in the Anne Frank House, feeling something like claustrophobia within the narrow corridors, trapped by the seeming endlessness of human-inflicted hurt. I cry in the room that holds the book listing the names of hundreds of thousands of Jews who died in Holland.

And then I see these words painted upon a white wall: “I’ll make my voice heard,” they say. “I’ll go out in the world and work for mankind.”

When Anne Frank wrote that, on April 11, 1944, she didn’t have one ounce of political clout or a single soldier standing behind her. She hardly had a penny to her name, or at least, one she could spend at the time. She had a notebook and a pencil and a thinking head. And if Anne Frank found a way to exercise power from the Secret Annex, then I can’t have any excuse.

So what can we do, in these infinite aftermaths? We can watch and we can speak. We have a duty, I think, to try to explain the terrible things that happen, not in a way that reduces them to data points, scattered across the plots of our personal vendettas, but in a way that integrates them into the larger story of human experience. We have to ask, “Why?” in the wake of any disaster. Some part of that answer might be undiscoverable, lodged forever within the personal psyche of the perpetrator, but some part of the answer isn’t. There are things we can do to structure the world differently. There are ways we can promote peace. Americans can call for change in the realm of gun legislation, and, I think, we must.

But it isn’t enough to ask, “Why?” We also have to ask, “Who?” – Who is hurt by violence? Who creates the conditions that condone it? The categories might overlap. In any case, I can’t have any hope of making sense of what happened in Paris unless I also try to understand Beirut. We can have no prayers of putting an end to the violence of the world unless we see it in its full measure, unless we are capable of telling the story of all those who are affected by bombs and guns and tanks and terror, and not just some.

Anne Frank, after all, wanted to work for all humankind. We should, too.

Chelsea Thomeer ’17 is an English and political science double major from Williamsville, N.Y. She is currently studying abroad in Dublin, Ireland.

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