THE PURSUIT OF WORLDLINESS
by Barry Edelson
"The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting."
– Milan Kundera
The killing field in Las Vegas, where 58 people were murdered and many hundreds wounded by a lone gunman on the evening of October 2, 2017, looks like an empty parking lot. If somehow one had not heard about the mass shooting — the worst in American history in numbers of casualties — it would be impossible to tell that in this very place an outdoor concert was turned into a scene of unspeakable horror. A black fence surrounds the lot, which is the size of a city block, to keep anyone from walking on it, but otherwise there is no outward evidence of the carnage that took place there. No blood stains, no historical markers. From the vantage point of the adjacent sidewalk or a hotel room overlooking the site, it's just another ugly expanse of asphalt.
It is possible that the city of Las Vegas intends to build a memorial for the victims, but right now it is as if nothing ever happened. This purposeful emptiness is part of the ritual aftermath of acts of violence, whether explosions set off by terrorists or gun massacres by the seriously deranged. As soon as the forensic people finish their gruesome work, we wash the pavement clean and sweep up the debris. When buildings are damaged, we replace the glass windows, fill in the bullet holes, and return things to the way they looked before. If a building is flattened, we build a new one.
Justice is a paradox, because it simultaneously demands remembrance and forgetting. Against all experience, we prefer to believe that mourning the dead and getting back to normal are not mutually exclusive impulses. We are determined to honor the victims, to give meaning and respect to their lives, since we can make no sense of the random and pointless way in which they died. But papering over the damage as quickly as we can, and in effect erasing the evidence from the street and from our minds, is how we deny the perpetrator the glory and immortality he craves. In grieving we remember; in setting things to rights we forget. This rapid clean-up has long been the standard response to bombings in Israel, which has seen more than its share of terrorist atrocities over the years: do not grant the bombers' wish to disrupt our lives. The rest of the world has long since learned this lesson and adopted this approach. The power that mass murderers have over us is to induce fear and make us retreat from ordinary life, and so we believe that we must never allow them to enjoy any benefit from the exercise of this power.
Do we not have this backwards? Are we not playing into the killers' hands when we wipe away the outward signs of death and destruction? Isn't this how tyrants keep control over their subjects, by writing state-sanctioned murder out of the history books, and by air-brushing inconvenient facts out of the official photographs? One of the primary ways in which the powerful hold on to their power is by declaring, "Nothing to look at here," and to persecute anyone who says otherwise. The denial of memory is the denial of justice. The Chinese government's attempt to eradicate all memory of the Tiananmen Square uprising is a case in point. It is never sufficient to act as though nothing happened, because denying the killer his moment in the spotlight also denies the dead their place in the human story.
To be sure, building a memorial is an act of remembrance. The ones at the World Trade Center site and the federal building in Oklahoma City are exceptional examples of the form, but even they fall short of capturing the depravity of these events and the enormity of the void they left behind. Perhaps the task is impossible. We are probably being naive in supposing that there is such a thing as a suitable or adequate response to the indiscriminate murder of civilians, especially children. Life cannot simply return to normal because we wish it so.
There is now a proposal to tear down Columbine High School in Colorado because, more than two decades after the mass killing that happened there, it has increasingly become an attraction for the morbidly curious and violently inclined. The impulse for demolition is entirely understandable — the school needs to be able to function in the present day without frequent random visits by lunatics — but is tearing it down a proper or even an effective response? Will it really accomplish the stated goal of burying the dreadful massacre of teenagers once and for all? Pretending that the actions of the killers did not happen neither honors the dead nor prevents the next attack. Terrorists and other mass murderers occupy a mental landscape that is impenetrable to reason or to the ordinary calculus of crime and punishment. The unfortunate reality is that their indifference to their own survival gives them an extraordinary power over us, and that we do indeed change our lives in response to that power.
This much is clear: we no longer live in the same world we inhabited before Oklahoma City, or Columbine, or 9/11. No swift rebuilding or stirring tributes will get us back to where we were. "Don't let the terrorists win" is a nice catchphrase, but it has little practical application. Collective amnesia perhaps enables us to live without fear, or to pretend to, but not without also expunging the undeserving dead from our memories.
Tolstoy famously wrote that happy families are all alike, but that each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. This is largely true of communities, cities and countries, too.
One of the defining characteristics of a happy group is the adherence to an accepted version of the past, whereas members of an unhappy group tend to diverge sharply in their recollections. The happy group's adopted narrative may have little bearing on the truth, but this is inconsequential. The decisive factor is that they are in agreement. If a discordant note is struck, the happy group does not allow it to disturb their harmony. They transform it, or ignore it, or pretend they did not even hear it. By contrast, the divisions within an unhappy group are reflected in their inability even to agree on what happened, and these disagreements in turn deepen the emotional fractures among them. Discord becomes their default position.
The reluctance to accept reality on the national level is rooted in family conflict. Our habits of remembering and forgetting are formed at home.
This dynamic is strikingly portrayed in Tara Westover's Educated, a memoir of growing up in a Mormon family in rural Idaho. The author's father was a survivalist, and mentally ill. Her mother was a midwife and herbalist who acceded to her husband's paranoid anti-government views. According to her father, even their town's mainstream Mormons, who would be considered very conservative to other Americans, were morally corrupt and insufficiently religious. He spent most of his time preparing for the end of days, stocking up on food, fuel, ammunition and other supplies, certain that the end was coming and that being entirely self-sufficient was what true people of faith were required to do.
The family's seven children did not attend school but did not get much in the way of home-schooling, either. They worked in their father's junkyard from an early age, suffering all manner of horrific injuries along the way. Tara and two of her brothers broke with their father to attend college, and all three had very successful academic careers, but the the price they paid was losing their family. As hard as she tried, Tara could find no way to reconcile the worldly knowledge she had gathered, and the more conventional life she slowly adopted, with the implacable certitude of her father. He thought that getting an education was a betrayal and that anyone who didn't share his beliefs, and who engaged with the government and the outside world in any way, was beyond redemption. Ultimately the family split into two groups, for the most part: the ones who got away, and the ones who did not.
It would be simple to demarcate the rupture between Tara and her father along religious or ideological lines. Over time, a rift certainly widened between them along the boundaries of their beliefs. But where the family most painfully came apart was in failing to agree on a collective memory. Relations took a dramatic turn when Tara and her sister confronted their parents about the physical and mental abuse they had suffered for many years at the hands of one of their older brothers. Not only did their parents refuse to acknowledge that the brother had done anything wrong (despite their mother's initial receptiveness, which encouraged them to press their case), but her sister later surrendered to their parents' point of view and broke angrily with Tara. The pressure to follow the family story was too powerful to overcome even her own memories, and her own pain. Most of the rest of the family followed suit. Not surprisingly, the abusive brother married and mistreated his wife in much the same way he had tormented his sisters. Like his father, he clearly suffered from severe psychological problems, but in the absence of a family narrative in which these illnesses could be accepted and confronted, they might as well have not existed. In order to survive in this environment, in which suffering is deemed holy and necessary, the victim comes to believe that she must be culpable for the misery that is visited upon her.
Neglect and abuse did not break up the family, nor dreadful wounds, nor buried feelings. Neither did the enlightenment that came with education and the inevitable differences of opinion that arose from the divergent paths that some of the children chose. What drove them apart was their inability to tell the same story.
We have become so risk-averse as a society that any amount of pain or mere inconvenience is intolerable. Perhaps this makes us a richer target for mass killers, who surely understand, in their twisted logic, that our desperate desire for a life without discomfort or unhappiness makes us especially vulnerable to even the suggestion of violence. One of the ways in which Tara Westover's father stands apart from the rest of America is in his rejection of medical attention for himself or his family even in the most extreme circumstances — car wrecks, third-degree burns, severe head trauma — and his insistence on experiencing whatever pain that God has in store.
It is perversely fitting, then, that Las Vegas, a city devoted to the satisfaction of earthly appetites, should have been the target of an especially horrific mass shooting. An inexplicable compulsion in the mind of a deluded individual found its expression in the one place in America which defines itself proudly by its detachment from ordinary life. The killer left no manifesto, and showed no obvious signs of mental illness, so his "reasons" for killing all of those people, and attempting to kill hundreds more, remain a mystery. For a city with no purpose but pleasure, a killer with no motive but pain.
Vegas implicitly promotes itself as a place where visitors can indulge in the pure joy of spectacle, unscathed by life's misfortunes — if only for a short while. This is a remarkable triumph of marketing, considering that the casinos earn all of their profit by fleecing their customers. Everyone knows that the house always wins, and still gambling has been sold as just another form of risk-free entertainment, attracting millions who readily surrender their money in exchange for an illusion. The self-deception is not that players will really hit the jackpot, but that losing itself is enjoyable. Las Vegas banishes suffering.
For one ghastly evening, the Las Vegas illusion was shattered. But not for long. In view just beyond the vacant lot of death is the airport, where planeloads full of visitors land every day of the year, flocking to the strip for the slot machines, shows and other gaudy attractions. Less than two years ago, someone mowed down hundreds of people from a window in the Mandalay Bay Hotel, whose glass facade by day glows brightly in the desert sun. The shattered glass has long since been replaced, and the room the gunman used to commit his crime is indistinguishable from every other. Vegas is hardly unique in its desire to push its ugly past aside, but it does so with exceptional determination.
Edward Albee wrote, "If you have no wounds, how can you know if you're alive?" However hard we try to forget them, our scars will not disappear. Whether as families or nations, we cannot live meaningfully if we hold on to our grief too tightly, nor if we bury painful memories too deeply. They may haunt us all the more acutely for having been ignored, particularly if half of us have an entirely different recollection from the other half.
July 5, 2019
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