Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Indifference

People get killed.

Everyday, and for no reason other than the sad coincidence of place and time, people get killed.

The front page of the New York Times today is taken over by coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings. Every known detail about the killer is made public. Interactive features about the victims are provided.

A news article next to the main story says 171 people were killed in bombings in Baghdad. They remain nameless, unseen.

It would be easy to make this a question of arithmetic, to say "how come 33 American deaths count for more than the thousands of innocents dying elsewhere, many of them because of US indifference / aggression?"

But when it comes to death, all comparisons are meaningless. When it comes to grief, we are all selfish.

"Any man's death diminishes me", Donne writes. It's a noble sentiment, but one that none of us can hope to live up to. If we were stronger, braver, more large-hearted, we should mourn every murder, weep for the death of every innocent. But none of us has the emotional stamina for that. Not when the supply of horrors is varied and inexhaustible. In the world we live in, indifference is not a failing, it is a survival strategy - the only way we can hope to stay sane.

So we choose what to grieve for, and our choices are subjective and arbitrary. Like trying to decide on a poem you like, a painting that moves you. Between the tragedies we are universally appalled by and the intimacy of our private losses, lies a shop's-worth of horrors that we must greet either with tears or with a shrug of the shoulder. Are we to blame if some events, deserving of our sympathy though they may be, leave us unmoved? Does this make us inhuman? Or does it prove that we are, in fact, human, and have only a limited capacity for sharing in other people's grief?

The killings at Virginia Tech are newsworthy because they are unexpected, because they are a shock. A freak incident of mass murder that is unlikely to be repeated is more 'interesting' than the unspeakable predictability of the daily violence in Iraq. Is it right that this is so? No. Is there any virtue, therefore, in withholding our sympathy from the victims of these killings, in saying they are not the only innocents to die, they do not 'deserve' our exclusive sympathy? Not really. They deserve all the sympathy, all the tears, that we can afford to give them.

Whether or not you grieve for the victims of the Virginia Tech shootings is irrelevant - a matter of taste rather than of principle. Some people are affected by pictures or by individual stories. Others by numbers. Some people mourn for what cannot be stopped from happening again, others for what can but will not. These are preferences, patterns of thought behind which we hide the impossible choice that faces us everyday: the problem of deciding which among a hundred injustices we engage with emotionally, and which we choose to ignore.

The question is not how many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn't see. The question is: how many times can he afford not to?

32 comments:

Anonymous said...

I've found myself wondering about this indifference too. I also realise that it is a sort of a defence mechanism, which helps us to maintain our sanity by allowing us to distance ourselves emotionally from all the suffering and maddness that we see around us. But then I wonder about the sanity in "choosing" to be blind.

~N.
~N.

Space Bar said...

Very recently read a report that was talking about some research; apparently easier to empathise with the death of smaller numbers. in other words, in our minds, there's little difference between 300 and 500, but all the difference in the world between 3 and 50.

i'm sure distance has something to do with it as well. in hyderabad, the newspapers two days ago were full of stray dogs attacking little children; the virginia tech incident was a photographn on the front page.

Atish said...

have been reading ur blog for quite sometime now .. but commenting for the first time .. a very insightful post indeed...and needless to say very well written...
i love ur writing...

VV said...

Beautifully written.

Perceptive girl said...

well put. I think we can get attched or atleast we can relate to the people getting killed in places far away frm ours by being involved. n tht means by helping in some way or the other. and thts not impossible by any chance. one may definitely question tht wht about the practical nature of solution then. well, thts true.

good work. keep writing.
also, i find ur writings sincere and not jus impress-karo style.
:)

30in2005 said...

Falstaff, today you have put down most beautifully what is so wrong with the world. I just spent last evening yelling at the TV screen at various news channels going on about V-tech for an hour and then devoting about 3 minutes to the constant killing in Iraq. When did it all go so wrong? When did we begin to think that one death is less important than another? when did we stop being human beings first and above all else?

upsilamba said...

42,

I lurk your space daily; your posts are always a staple diet.

And today I leave a comment -- for all posts well-written and thought provoking.

Way to go, 2x3x7!!!

Aishwarya said...

Seen this yet?

http://www.neilgaiman.com/journal/2007/04/other-people.html

Sandeep Balijepalli said...

great piece....

The Black Mamba said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Arthur Quiller Couch said...

A choice I made a long time ago, but you sum it up neatly.

Chimera said...

we think we are clinically detached and suddenly an incident comes along which makes us wake up from our misconception - perhaps we are not as detached as we think we are.

Balaji Shenoy said...

Beautiful Beautiful.......Beautiful writing!!

I think you have answered in your post some of the questions that I was asking from myself....

Thank you!!!

CAR said...

really well said!

gawker said...

Although here you compare the amount of human grief directed towards victims of the VT massacre to that directed towards victims of other events of a similar nature, I would like to extend the same principle to different victims of the same tragedy.

I've been wondering why the Indian community has been focusing on the two Indians who died and not everyone else. People have written long eulogies for these individuals. And it's not that they knew these people better than they knew everybody else who was murdered. They were all equal strangers. Why, then, this outpouring of compassion for these two particular strangers and not the others?

I think this post provides a credible explanation.

dazedandconfused said...

Was the last line a play on the lyrics from the Dylan song, or just a coincidence...?

Nice post, by the way.

Raghu Ram Prasad said...

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dodo said...

The way you have put the emotion into word is excellent!!

I thought and thought,about the whole incident, the other killings (I was actually thinking of the butchering of 55 policement in MP)under the light of this incidents, the other mayhems very nearby those we have learnt to ignore, but never could put them into words.

rs said...

when i was working for the international desk of a newspaper, my news editor used to say "oh only 22 deaths in iraq. chuck it"

i am reminded of a scrap of one of rosa luxumberg's quote: "...each tear that flows, when it could have been spared, is an accusation..."
for me, the choice does not come with the sympathising but the accusation part. i sympathise but do not accuse anyone in particular for letting the virginia tech killings happen. but iraq is a diff story

Selva said...

Though provoking and sincere. A rare post when it is easy to let emotions cloud every thought. "In the world we live in, indifference is not a failing, it is a survival strategy - the only way we can hope to stay sane." How true. And, how true too that it is our own doing. We've let mass media define who we are, we have let ourselves to be desensitized (this word itself sounds banal these days) and our perspectives skewed beyond recognition - a killer defines himself with a multimedia package, mangled iraqis and macheted darfurians are but space fillers, and the real problem hides behind history and the Second Amendment.

Kronoskraor said...

I don't think any of it can be ignored.I was ragging a fuccha in my college one time and he happened to tell me he was from Afghanistan.Studying in India on a scholarship.That his father was in Iraq, and mother in Afghanistan.I was perfectly fine all day long,but when I lied down to sleep I couldn't.I wept most of the night. There's so much that we take for granted,but what's sad is that we should be able to take it for granted.Why should one have to think even once while gettin onto the metro that maybe one wouldn't reach college cuz one might get blown up.

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