Nairobi Terrorism and the Hierarchy of Trauma

Talking about evil is hard. It involves at least two paradoxes. Here’s the first. On the one hand, to denounce evil is an ethical act. It is to affirm our deepest values and to commit ourselves to preventing acts that dehumanize others. On the other hand, to denounce evil can be an unethical act. It is a way of demonizing; it is, precisely, to dehumanize another. Here’s the second paradox: On the one hand, we need to the concept of evil to philosophically and ethically distinguish acts that shock our consciences, acts that are not adequately encompassed by words like bad, wicked, or wrong. The concept of evil clarifies. On the other hand, the concept of evil confuses, prevents thinking. We imagine evil is other than human, beyond understanding, almost mystical. This lets us off the hook, lets us deny our own capacity for evil, and stops us from analyzing the very human, very common causes of it.

James Dawes: The Guts of Atrocity

I have never quite known what to react in the wake of tragedy. Saying too much almost feels too opinionated, and saying too little almost feels to insincere. I remember my first encounter five years ago with a personal tragedy and death was uncontrollable laughter. Apparently my ‘coping’ mechanism then, was to try to see the humorous side of the story. Highly inappropriate. But now, over the past week, I am finding no humor that can help me cope as I watch Kenya balance a growing sadness of a nation, the anger of their citizens and the anguish of loved ones as terrorists stormed an upscale mall in Nairobi claiming over 60 lives.

As emails, phone calls, texts and social media updates came pouring in, the irony is not lost on me on how tragedies happen everyday around the world and yet, why is it that this one just seems so much more real. As my emotions slide between the continuum of “why” and “shock”, a strange version of this Hierarchy of Trauma began to emerge. As I scroll through the news for updates on Nairobi on that day, and throughout the week, it dawned on me that hundreds of people die and are affected by conflicts around the world. In Pakistan, 81 people perished in a church suicide bombing. In Nigeria, over 500 perished in terrorist related violence in the north of the country, and the on-going Syria crisis has claimed tens of thousands of lives. Countries and communities that I can’t even comprehend who and where – are suffering. Yet, why my heart aches the most for my Nairobi home and only for a fleeting moment of empathy for the news in Pakistan.

And suddenly it struck me, trauma and grief isn’t a competition or a hierarchy. We each grieve for different losses, in our own way and in time. There is no trauma that is superior to, lesser, greater, less shocking, better covered, or any other comparative phrase, than the suffering of any individual or community. All we can do, is know that even if your experience does not have a chapter in other stories of conflict and trauma, it still a part of our story as humanity as a whole.

Thinking of you.

***

Selected pieces that provide different perspectives on the Nairobi incident:

1) Generosity of citizens in donations for the victims

2) NY Times on the Value of Suffering 

3) A Tribute to a Friend: Ravi

4) Aung San Suu Kyi: the Freedom from Fear

5) A beautiful piece in The Nation on forgiveness

6) Nanjala Nyabola in Al-Jazeera on Keeping the Nairobi incident in perspective 

7) An interview with author, James Dawes on his new book: Evil Men – a collection of dialogues with war criminals from the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945)

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