I find I cannot help but think of this famous, chilling line from Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’. (A novel which I greatly admire.) Specifically, its connotations of being overwhelmed to the point of a sort of semi-dumb stupor, robbed of all eloquence or power to elaborate, by the sheer horrificness of something. It is like one’s very soul is gasping for air, having been punched in the gut by the world being so heinously unlike how it should be.
When the news broke several days ago about the massacre at two mosques in New Zealand, I… found I just couldn’t bring myself to read about it in depth. The news sites I frequent had already divulged enough in their blunt, formal headlinese: Dozens Dead. Shooter Live-streamed Killing Spree. Racist Manifesto Discovered. Those kind of summations, alone, sufficed to give me a sense of how unbelievably awful this tragedy was, how especially twisted and monstrous the plan behind it was, how stomach-turningly sick its perpetrator was. And I could not will myself to seek out and absorb any further details. For even the outline of the story was so dire, so depressing. Such a large number of innocent people attacked in such a nightmarishly brutal and callous way. I believe that the current count stands at fifty killed, fifty injured. (And the youngest victim was just… two years old.) Good god. But, of course, it doesn’t even end there. One ought to spare a thought for their families too. Who must be going through nigh-unbearable grief and sorrow.
It occurs to me that words cannot properly capture or convey the sheer evilness of such a thing. And there would be an absurdity in even trying to make them do so. Nor does the mind fare much better. It reflexively recoils in disgust and fear and abhorrence, failing to grapple with the true extent of the crime’s hideousness. This limitation is, perhaps, a small mercy. Even if the universe should have cared more about alloting merciful treatful to the victims instead.
In point of fact, I usually do click on these sort of news stories and, unpleasant though it is, make myself read about what happened. Half because I think it’s important to stay apprised of what the fuck is going on in the world; half because of – I’ll be totally candid here – an irrepressible morbid curiosity. That’s why this choice not to was significant. I’m not quite sure why I made it. I guess I just finally felt like I could imbibe no more of the horror. It might be that it was just a gradual wearing down of the mental fortitude needed to read such things and not let them destroy your day, or even a few days in a row, with vicarious sadness. As there is undoubtedly no shortage of these grisly stories to perpetuate that chipping-away effect. Just today, it’s being reported that there was an attack in the Netherlands, where multiple people were shot whilst riding a tram. And it seems that, at the very least, several times a month one wakes up to find just such a story dominating the news. “Oh look,” you say to yourself, “some unbelievably vicious act of unbelievably idiotic violence has claimed yet more lives.” This grim internal-monologue remark has become a continual presence in modern life. It is the only thing which springs to mind anymore. And its matter-of-factness is jarring, yes. But remember that that’s born from the self-reproaching apathy of compassion-fatigue.
To return to the case of this particular story: after a few days passed, I began to feel weird about having let it pass by unexamined. A little guilty even. Like I was turning a blind eye to it for my own convenience, my own peace of mind. Because it was just easier to do so. And, as a result, I then felt very strongly that I had to make myself read about it. That it was somehow the right thing to do.
So I did. And the minutiae of the story turned out to be every bit as horrifying as I had expected. More so even. There’s a maximal degree of wickedness which is not just upsetting to read about, but profoundly astonishing too. Like how learning about the destructive power of hurricanes or earthquakes alters how you view mother nature. Because each time you see some new facet of just how fucking hateful and warped and barbaric someone can possibly be, your understanding and opinion of human beings as a species – as a concept even – is slightly changed. For the worse, I mean.
Unfortunately, the ways in which people can be kind to one another are relatively few. But the ways in which they can be savage to one another are many. So the more news you digest, the more lopsided your subconscious internal tally becomes. I think I could hazard a guess about the actual reason for this underlying asymmetry. Perhaps it’s because kindness does not require, or excessively benefit from, an exertion of the imagination. Kindness is simple. In the same way that the hydrogen atom or a succinct mathematical formula are simple. And that’s one of the beautiful things about it. Whereas the self-aggrandizing sadism which is inherent to savagery very much encourages the dreaming up of more and more showy variations. That’s why every physical object – no matter how impractical – that can be used to hurt or kill another person has been used to do so. It’s a depraved quest for originality. An attempt to refute a personal fear of being unspecial or inconsequential by fashioning some slightly new form of evildoing which will hopefully win them notoriety.
I don’t know. Maybe I’ve just devolved into rambling here. Let me get back on track. So, yeah, I read a whole bunch of news stories and other tertiary sources of information. The video though? It severely nauseates and disturbs me that it even exists. I hate that it exists. And despise those fuckheads snickeringly proliferating it. Plus, I’m not a superstitious person, but if any thing – be it physical or digital – could ever be imbued with a sort of accursedness, gleefully-shot footage of a killing spree seems like a prime candidate. We should not have to suffer its presence in our world. But such is life. At any rate, I did not watch so much as a single second of it. And, indeed, tried fastidiously to maintain this state of ignorance. Alas, the bane which is auto-playing videos on news sites, where snippets from before and after the killing spree were often featured, made this a challenge. (If they don’t want their profits slashed by ad-blocker use, they should cut this obnoxious shit out. For a start.)
And as for the criticism of social media sites not being able to perfectly prevent the mass uploading of this video onto their platforms? Well, gosh, I am a little discomforted by having to again defend companies which I otherwise do have several problems with… but I’ve got to say I find that complaint silly. As would anyone who knows anything at all about: A) how hard it is to comprehensively moderate – either via human or algorithmic oversight, or both – a platform with millions upon millions of accounts, and B) how easy it is to take any piece of data, like a video file, and slightly modify it in a myriad different ways to mask it from attempts to automatically detect its content. With this in mind, the truth is that if there are enough scumbags doing it, and they’re dedicated enough, there’s not really a way to prevent them from deluging any online platform with a certain file. Spam attacks are popular for a reason. They’re crude but effective. Those doing it may not be able to keep their uploads unflagged and undeleted for very long afterwards, but that they’ll be able to find some sneaky workaround to make the upload itself, there can be no doubt. So unless you understand what the inescapable real-world constraints are for these social media services, you’ll just make a fool out of yourself by claiming they should have achieved the impossible. Now, sure, maybe they could have done incrementally better than they did. That seems plausible enough. Albeit hard to prove from the outside. But somehow I don’t think that, say, a 70% quick-deletion rate rather than a 60% one would have won over the detractors. (Despite all that, I do also feel extremely bad for people who had this video inflicted on them when they were just scrolling down their Twitter or Facebook feed. That really sucks. It’s a truly, truly awful thing to have to see, especially when you’re involuntarily ambushed by it.)
I did end up reading all the key parts of the manifesto though. Again, I felt like I had to. I think that one probably has a responsibility to look evil in its face sometimes. To know what it is, to know how it functions, to glean how it may be resisted and defeated. But this is, of course, a very grim and upsetting task. As it was here. I felt weirdly and indescribably dirty just reading the manifesto. And, to be honest, I don’t really have much to say about it. Because it actually doesn’t warrant much comment. It’s a mere tissue of nonsense and cretinism and insanity, just as one might predict. And it features the usual transparent efforts to disavow any self-centered glory-seeking even though the entire document reeks to high heaven of a deep-seated, diseased form of narcissism. Also, I happened to read an analysis of it which warned that it was fraught with a dastardly expert use of irony and meta-reference, which was meant to fly right past the bat of the normal person. This, as far as I could tell, is a wild exaggeration. Because if this disordered mind-vomit was meant as a sort of rhetorical booby-trap? Well, it’s a poorly-made one. That’s for sure. The attempts at blending memes or concealed messages or fake attributions of motive into the text are painfully, painfully clumsy and obvious. To the point of ridiculousness actually.
Alright, I’m gonna change course a bit now.
There’s something much more general, much more abstract I’ve been thinking about. The horrors – small and large, personal and communal, etc – occuring out there in the world have a way of continually intruding themselves upon you. Sometimes in the least expected ways, in the least expected moments.
I wasn’t at all planning to bring this example up, but in the strangest/most fitting of incredible coincidences, I happen to be inadvertently rewatching this video (and nearing the particular moment in it) right now as I write this post. I really almost can’t believe it myself. It’s just so crazy. But it would definitely seem somehow churlish to ignore such serendipity. Anyway, this Youtube video in question is totally innocuous. Some people would even deem it mundane. It’s a guy carrying a GoPro as he walks through the streets of his city in the rain. So you, the viewer, have a first-person perspective of what it’s like. This genre of video is very relaxing for me. I watch them often. In this particular example, I find the sound and sight of rainfall to be very soothing and enjoyable. And, in general, I find the discordant symphony of citylife to be useful background noise when I’m trying to focus on something else, like writing.
However, about halfway through this nearly hour long walk, the video-maker comes to an intersection where two men are standing facing each other and having a conversation. With too-perfect timing that even a novice playwright would hesitate to write into their work, the very first audible sentence is one of them saying “my son just took his life, last night.” He declares this very plainly, a little like he’s merely relaying which restaurant he recently dined at. It’s a busy street and oblivious pedestrians are coursing past with umbrellas raised. The other man makes a noise of disbelief, an odd vocalisation which manages to combine the intended effect of both ‘huh?’ and ‘really?!’. The first man – i.e. the evidently just-bereaved father – then responds, as if to reaffirm and clarify, “day before last night. My son.” Here the other man brusquely utters “why?” There is no compassion or delicacy in his voice whatsoever. In fact, it almost has an air of vague challenge. Like the claim itself didn’t even make sense as a proposition and must be defended. The first man begins to answer “he hang himself…” And that’s it. That’s all you get. The video-maker passes by them, and out of earshot, in the space of about four or five seconds. He then crosses the road. He doesn’t look back. There’s no indication he even noticed what he just unwittingly immortalized on film.
Let’s just say I wasn’t exactly able to enjoy the latter half of this video. At the time, I was caught so off guard by this intense overheard dialogue – especially because I tend to just let the audio of these videos kinda pass through me – that I was instantly jolted by surprise and bewilderment. I felt that I must have misheard what was said. So I went back to rewatch that critical five-second snippet. And I must have rewatched it at least ten times. I found it, as perhaps you can imagine, very disquieting. Not just because of how plainly this man references his son’s suicide, which happened just two days before, in the middle of a bustling sidewalk. But also because of what is enigmatically suggested by the visual component of the whole thing. The two men are standing about ten feet apart. And their body language and tone seem to indicate that they aren’t friends. It could be they’re just acquaintances, maybe even total strangers. The first man almost seems to offer his declaration of recent tragedy emotionlessly because he’s expecting no emotion (for example, the byproducts of sympathy) in return, which indeed turns out to be the case. But still he is making visible, for just an instant, the vacuum-sealed mummifying confines of his own private realm of grief. Which imprisons him and his silent anguish within the hollow silhouette of who he was before fate got bored and decided it would try breaking its toys instead.
Indeed, as I’m sure you’ll agree, this is an extremely personal and vulnerable state to expose to view on a street corner. And therefore I’d have assumed the average gruff New Yorker would be disinclined to do so. Especially if it can’t even court any solace. Why, then, this exchange takes place at all is mystifying. And more than a little perturbing. The perfect recipe for it lodging in the back of your mind like a splinter.
The video itself doesn’t have all that many views. And I scoured the comments on it, realizing as I did so that I really hoped mention was made of this startling moment. I wanted to see that it had dismayed someone else too. Yet I couldn’t find anyone referring to it at all. So there it was. Oh joy. Something seemingly just for me. Eavesdropping on a deeply weird thing which has, no doubt, some horrible backstory. I hadn’t meant to find it. I hadn’t wanted to find it. But it found me nonetheless. If I could have avoided noticing it, I probably would have. But that’s not how these moments work, is it? The world is indefatigable when chasing you down with these little gift-baskets of bleak and sorrowful truths.
I sometimes wonder about just how much fucked-up shit is going on across the planet at any given moment. And how I can presume to live a normal life while that is the invisible but very real backdrop. Let me put it in concrete terms. If you found yourself trapped in a large room with ten people dying in it – some starving to death, some overdosing, some being murdered by others, etc – do you think you could be happy there? Do you think you could ever enjoy trivial amusements again? The answer is obvious. But the earth is, in some sense, that room. Just on a colossal scale. And those ten are actually tens of thousands. You just can’t see them. Nor are they reported on. Because in a way, one could argue that the main headline every day should be a constant repetition of ‘Thousands Perish from Starvation and Hunger and Violence yet again’. Of course, that would be utterly unbearable to be reminded of daily. Hopelessness would consume you. So I suppose that happy, carefree spans of time are only possible when forgetting that this is indeed the state of affairs. Out of sight, out of mind is a trite expression, aye, but it also expresses a profound truth about the malleable weave and resulting texture of human experience.
I would emphasize here that I’m not chastisting anyone for not ruining their mood every day by reacquainting themselves with the statistics for, say, childhood deaths from malnutrition. Generally speaking, this would simply be an act of pointless masochism. Just because you happen to have that tragic fact in mind right now doesn’t do anything to help those who are its victims. And even if you wanted to try to help them, you most likely do not have the money or resources to do so in any meaningfully significant fashion. (*Sigh*) Perhaps that suggests there would be a sort of robotic wisdom, born out of pragmatism, in not getting emotionally invested in problems or worries outside of your own sphere of possible-action. However large or small that sphere may be. But there would also be a sort of internal deadening involved. A disregard for a crucial part of our own humanity. This is the paradox of empathy. To overindulge it seems moral but can in fact be paralyzing, which helps no-one. To ignore it can better enable us to focus on helping ourselves and others, but then are you even doing it for the right reasons?
Ultimately, I don’t really know what I am trying to say. I guess I’m really just venting. I’m at a loss about what to do with the brute-fact that I live in a world filled with so much suffering, so much horror, unassailable by the individual. I don’t know if there even is anything to do with it. Maybe it’s just there, something upsetting and unnerving to recall every now and then. Like walking past a stranger and fleetingly hearing them announce some foregone tragedy. They know that there’s nothing you can say or do. You know that there’s nothing you can say or do. But still they have to announce it and still you have to hear it. And still you have to find some way to keep walking on along your path afterwards.