Saturday, July 23, 2011

Terror in the Global Village

Biscuit and I have talked* on several occasions about the way that modern news media ensure we know about every middle class white child or young woman who ends up decaying in a shallow grave somewhere, or every one of the handful of shark attacks that happen every summer. This all promotes the impression that the world is a more dangerous place than it is. Or at least dangerous in a different way than it actually is. Two generations ago these stories would never have made it out of the local paper, unless the people involved were fabulously well-to-do, or famous. Most of the country is not within four or five degrees of separation from any one event.

Sadly, I think another effect of this constant flow of remote horror is that it desensitizes us. Attacks that happen a world away are sad and often shocking, but they don't really touch us where we live. The bus bombings in London, and the train bombings in -- where was that, Spain? Portugal? -- were abstract tragedies, brought to life only a little by video from the scene. People are being blown to bits every day in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it may as well be happening in Little Whinging.

It's different when things happen in a place -- or to people -- that we know. New Yorkers were affected by 9/11 to a degree that I don't think the rest of us can appreciate. I've met one person who has been shot, and he told me about it within ten minutes of the first time I laid eyes on him, despite the fact that it happened years before. And it made me really, really never want to get shot. If you know a place personally where something horrible happened, it tends to jump to mind every time you pass there, often for many years.

Most of you know that Biscuit and I visited Oslo a couple of months ago. It was without a doubt my favorite city** so far. We both loved the people, the architecture, and just the general vibe of the place. That doesn't make it our hometown by any stretch of the imagination, but it definitely makes it more real to me. Oslo is not that big of a city, so when I heard the explosion was in the city center, I knew it couldn't be too far from where we had stayed. It turns out to be about three blocks.

In spite of how it may look, I'm not trying to make this about me. This tragedy has not affected me in any significant way. But I can't help think of the people we met there, and I feel for them. Unlike Nancy Grace and her followers, I don't generally get outraged when screwed up people I don't know do bad things to other people I don't know. But it is sad to know that the cute little Swedish waitress who made us feel so at home on our first night, and the old lady on the train who needed help with her bag, and all the rest, have all been deeply touched. Some are undoubtedly grieving for acquaintances or loved ones lost.

Fortunately for me, this is all happening a world away, and I will soon tire of the unending coverage of who this man was, why he did what he did, and all of the ridiculousness and conjecture. Within a few weeks it will be no more than a modification of the story of our trip. "We were in Oslo just a few weeks before that attack..."  I will quickly forget the way I feel today.

Norwegians won't be as fortunate. You can't go through this sort of thing in a city of that size without it leaving a mark. Ask the residents of Oklahoma City.

Oslo city center. I never really wanted to leave this greenspace, which runs for about five blocks. The Parliament building is visible through the trees.

* Or ranted. You say tom-ah-toe; I say people are stupid and I can't believe we have survived this long as a species.

** Displacing Vancouver, which held the title for over thirty years.


  1. I appreciate how some people are willing to assert the unpopular opinion:

    This is a clip from 2009, from British journalist Charlie Brooker's show "Newspipe", which Wikipedia bills as "a comic, thoughtful, acerbic analysis of recent news coverage". It's a somewhat less tongue-in-cheek relative of "The Daily Show".

    What really gets me is that these shows, billed as comedy and written off as drivel by a lot of people (mostly Conservatives) who religiously watch the 24-hr news networks and shows like Nancy Grace, are the only ones willing to take a large enough step back to see the absurdity of the current news cycle and to say, "Hey, maybe this isn't good for people or society."

    On a more personal note, I was living in London in 2005 when the tube bombings happened. My best friend at the time was doing a summer LSU program for a month in London as well, and she took that tube line from her apartment to the school every day.

    As soon as I heard about the incident on the radio, I started to panic and furiously rang her mobile.

    I was crying by the time I finally got through on the third or fourth attempt. She had overslept that day, and wasn't on the train.

    It wasn't until that moment that I got a very small taste of how people in NYC must have felt, and really understood.

  2. As usual, another well written and insightful essay. Thanks for bringing it home...despite the distance, it's hard not to grieve for the individuals affected in any tragedy...though like you, I prefer not to join the slathered-up, self-rightous throngs lead by the likes of pundits on FOX or such shows.
    p.s. three in a row??! Let me say how lucky I feel!

  3. saw a show at "Upright Citizens Brigade" last week while in NYC. John Mulvaney, comedian, and writer for SNL did a wonderful bit about fears... basically saying that he was really surprised when he grew up and discovered that quicksand wasn't a threat! based on saturday morning cartoons, it seemed like public enemy number one... along with being hit with an anvil falling off a building...

    appreciate your essay on this. and understand how the personal connection really can enhance the resonance.

  4. I just started following your blog, and really appreciated this post. The news has a way of making real-life victims seem like characters in some movie. These were real people affected by the tragedy in Norway, and your posting helps remind us of that. Thanks!