Yesterday, nearly 100 people in Norway – most of them teenagers – woke up to what they would’ve never known was their last day alive. A lone madman fueled by a toxic mix of ideology, and no doubt insanity, was all it took to end so many lives. No matter how many horrible events like this occur, we are always left asking how and why someone could do this (and we never reach a satisfying answer).
Events like this really get to me, especially given how many of them I had to study for my major; International Relations encompassed researching all sorts of conflicts, including terrorism and genocide. Couple all that with a tendency to over-saturate myself with news, and it’s no wonder I respond to all this intimately. While one would think such constant exposure and immersion would have the opposite effect – numbing me to the same extent that veterans become battle-hardened – I find that the opposite is true. Obviously, I’m more detached in a visceral sense: I don’t respond with shock, awe, and raw emotion. But my empathy remains unchanged, especially given my own anxieties about death (my own and others’) and my realization that I could easily be in any given victim’s position.
That is what really disturbs me the most. The perpetrator impersonated a police officer, and was thus able to lure these people to gather around him before indiscriminately opening fire (and in so doing, gaining the distinction of having committed the greatest act of violence on Norway’s soil since World War II). Were we there with the victims, what would have done? Who among us would’ve known there was something up? Speaking for myself, I most definitely would have been among those to cooperate, not knowing any better and not having any reason to fear for my life (after all, how often does a police officer turn out to be a mass murderer, especially in as peaceful and stable a place as Norway?) I could just as easily have been killed in such a deceptive and utterly unexpected matter. And such is often the nature of death.
That’s always what follows from my mind when I read of such things. It could be me. It could be someone I love and who be devastated to lose. You can minimize your chances by avoiding risky activities, substances, and circumstances, but that only gets you so far. There is never any full-proof way to avoid death, and there is absolutely no way our limited cognitive and sensory abilities could ever predict such things. To paraphrase a friend: death is all around us, and it’s amazing we get by without losing our lives. Indeed, events like this are yet another reminder of how frail our existence is. The fact that we need such constant reminders, assuming we even derive such a lesson in the first place, is proof of how detached most of us are from this grim possibility (not that I could blame anyone for not indulging in such morbid reflections).
However, that is the value of this macabre exercise. However much anxiety, paranoia, and sadness it may inflict on me, it allows me to appreciate every second I have on this Earth (all the more precious given that I am agnostic about any sort of after life, and thus live this one as my only). It’s a big reason why I try to stay optimistic and see the beauty in things, and why I obsess about making the most of my life. An understanding of mortality, however grim and nerve- wracking, and be quite good at boosting your sense of appreciation and spurring you to making sure that your moments on this Earth as pleasurable and fulfilling as possible. I could only hope that the victims of this attack, many of them adolescents, had lead the best lives possible, however short.
A final comment before I conclude my reflections: it’s been noted that this incident has received tremendous – some say excessive – attention, to the extent that the media is being accused of sensationalism. I’m not quite sure how I feel about this claim, though I could understand the contention, and could very well be clouded by my own sympathy. Whatever the intent of the relevant news agencies, I think they’re just responding to human society’s innate fascination with these sorts of brutal acts. The fact that it was Norway, a country seen as “innocent,” peaceful, and friendly, may also contribute to the sense of shock and interest (after all, the media, in response to relative public apathy, rarely devotes much attention to the everyday tragedies that occur in the “usual” suspects we’ve come to get used to as blighted). If something this horrible could happen in such a “nice” country, imagine how vulnerable the rest of us must feel? Perhaps most humans are as secretly concerned and fascinated by the prospect of an untimely death as I am.
In any case, the issue of there being too much attention to this, in light of numerous other stories, is difficult issue to address and requires a very delicate balance. If such incidents aren’t given attention, it may be perceived as cold, whereas too much attention appears – as we’re seeing – as sensationalist and narrow-minded. I feel strongly for the victims, but immersing ourselves in the grim details of their demise is ultimately inconsequential to them and their loved ones. We should extent are deepest sympathies, feel for their loss, and count our blessings. But there is little else anyone could do, as is the case with any attempt at consoling or trying to make sense of pointless death (and even natural death for that matter).
If I could ever derive any sort of silver limning for myself from such a horrific occurrence, it is how I am left with a strong sense of appreciation for my continued existence in this world. Nothing reaffirms our good fortune to be alive than the realization of our own mortality. It is sad that must take something like a fatal tragedy to do it, but such is the way of humans. That I can sit here and pontificate about the misfortune and death of others, rather than the other way around, is reason enough for me to be infinitely grateful.