Contemporary Violent Death

by NORMAN SIMMS August 18, 2016

When we hear that a son or a daughter has been killed violently or in a far away place, we feel something different about death itself. Those who are left to mourn hear the news suddenly, shockingly, unaware perhaps of where the loved one has been or why.  The situation is not like watching an illness developing or learning of an accident and rushing to the hospital.  Distance and violence exacerbate the feeling of sudden loss, inexplicable and confusing.  Added to the shock and grief, comes the worry of what will happen next: how to bring the body home, how to negotiate with seemingly interminable bureaucratic or diplomatic entanglements.  Where to turn for help or for some explanation.  What to stay to other members of the family, friends and colleagues, total strangers when they ask for comments. The lines between private and public seem breeched in a painful way.

Of the friend's son who was killed by a landmine during combat in Syria, we now know not just that he died during the early days of the battle for Majib, which has been recently liberated from the ISIS fanatics, and is thus a hero in historical terms, but that the real painful grieving will only begin once his body is returned to the USA for burial.  No easy task.  Until then, his family must keep negotiating with officials and waiting patiently while the wheels of international diplomatic bureaucracy roll on and on: though it is not the Kurds, who have actually been wonderfully respectful and efficient.

What is it that we feel about such an event, whether a violent terrorist act, a fanatical demonstration of cruelty and barbarism, or some grotesque explosion in a place we never heard of?  I know the parents of Israeli boys who were blown apart by roadside explosive devices or crushed by a madman driving a truck into a crowd at a bus-stop.  We all watched with horror as the World Trade Center buildings collapsed, as bodies fell to earth in a mass of dust, papers and smoke, as though they were people we once knew or could have met or passed on the street.

I am not sure tragedy is the right word, except insofar as it takes the very popular sense of an unbearable sense of loss and pain. The more literary and historical sense also don't quite fit: the notion of a great man or woman standing up against some inexorable fate working against human history and cosmic will.  In ancient Greek tragedies there is a notion of ritual sacrifice, of giving oneself on behalf of one's family and people against the gods, in Shakespeare's Hamlet and Macbeth or Othello, there is a sense of loss but also of grandeur, of powerful courage and yet also of inevitable weakness, something almost comical (in the way ignorance and error are fatally part of the human condition).   So how do we speak of the excruciating loss and never-ending pain? It is as though we have lost not just part of ourselves, but the most essential part of our own being and identity.  Sympathy and empathy give the clue.  It is a case of pathos, that is, a grieving emotion, but not the result of sentimental or superficial feeling.  There is no pitying, no pathetic or mawkish consolation.  Words fail, the imagination gives us to offer comfortable reasons. 

More than the loss of a parent, which is in the natural order of things, unless it too is violent and sudden, the loss of a child belongs to the living survivors, the  parents and the community around them.  Then what is required is sympathy and consolation, I don't think the Yiddish tsoros (or Hebrew tsurit) is strong enough, dignified enough, specific enough: to feel that someone you love is no longer there, has been torn away out of your heart, and to find yourself falling apart, sinking into despair.... then you need other people around you to carry you forward and let you pass through the long period of mourning and grieving.  I think you feel yourself to be dead, too.  And others treat you as a corpse or nearly one, sitting on the little stools for the seven days of mourning, shivah, having others do everything for you for a week, when you cannot bear to be alive and in the world.  When my father died-whom I had hardly seen for many years, he on the other side of the world-I couldn't help it, but tore my shirt, went into the garden threw dirt on my head, and wept.  I sat there for hours.

That is why tragedy is different and alien.  It is a Greek, a foreign notion, that there is some dark and scarcely knowable force opposed to everything we understand as human, and it crushes down our hopes, our joys, our loves-except in one small moment when the a person stands up against that natural or supernatural power.  


On a personal level, there is loneliness and pain that won't go away.  On a community level, there is bewilderment about why it happened, sometimes shame because it may require public statements about someone whose actions you do not understand.  Perhaps an attempt at a larger perspective may help those who, from the outside, search for answers, a guide at how to respond.  We know from discussions of suicide that before it happens it helps to use the word and to offer help and understanding; and afterwards, for the survivors, to be with the grieving family, to offer sympathy and one's practical support.  But in the violent deaths we are looking at here, these are historical and a political dimensions, or religious questions: terms that seem embarrassing and neglected in our modern world, or used in sentimental and superficial ways.  I offer my own suggestions, not so much as some professional protocol or official paradigm, but only a suggestion of how one might go about feeling and thinking at a time when emotions seem overwhelming and ideas inadequate.


The hero or martyr does not die willingly but for a cause, for someone or something that makes the personal loss bearable in the moment it comes. But can anyone else share in that epiphany, anyone alive today feel the exaltation or find comfort in the enlightenment?  We others feel the deep loss, but also if we are not close enough in blood or faith or ideology we are not knocked apart by the death and we have the terrible, niggling notion that it may not be worth remembering in a year or a decade or a century.  The other side in the war on terror has abused the term martyr for us to feel comfortable with it any time, not even in regard to Samson, who brought down the Temple of Dagon on the howling, mocking Philistines who had blinded him after Delilah made him reveal the source of his strength in his long locks. But sacrifice, martyrdom and even almost superhuman courage in battle fade away in another aspect of biblical tradition, the ironic and witty schlemiel who undercut the pretensions of the enemy, entrap them by their own boastful claims and arrogant self-confidence.   Or the power of a woman, unexpected in ancient warrior cultures, is used to destroy the enemy-one thinks of Judith beheading Holofernes, Salome dancing before Herod and his wife Herodia, and above all Queen Esther (alias Hadassah) undermining Haman's planned genocide against the Jews of Persia.  But these cunning heroines and wily tricksters veer off from the seriousness of epic and tragedy into comedy, and as they say, if one must die one dies, the result is a more subtle victory, and victory nonetheless in the long run.

One doesn't usually mourn for the fallen foes in such encounters between the eiron (the pretended fool) and the alazon (the boaster), or the shlamozzle (the bad-luck bumbler) who trips himself up in trying to seem normal, except perhaps in Kafka's tales and novels.   When the angels begin a hymn of triumph over the drowning of Pharaoh's charioteers in the story of Exodus, when the Red Sea crashes back together after the Children of Israel have passed through on dry land, God tells them to control themselves: "The Egyptians too are my children, " the Heavenly Voice tells them.  No gloating by the heroes as in Homer's Iliad.  The angel stays Abraham's hand when he is about slay his beloved son Isaac; no human sacrifices are valid, even in a test of loyalty and faith.  When the Judean Maccabees defeat the Seleucid armies and take back the Temple in Jerusalem, there is a miracle: the sacred Menorah is lit with only enough purified oil to last one night and yet it burns for seven.  The miracle confirms the victory, it does not cause it. 

The victims of sudden terrorism or in fighting an enemy that is not recognized or denied by the press, the politically correct, the diplomatically expedient have become, no matter how unwillingly, performers in a world-historical drama.  Our own responses also become part of this ritualized performance.  This does not lessen our hurt or our need to mourn.  Other families and communities over many generations and millennia have faced these problems and there are no easy answers, no simplistic solutions, and certainly no single prescribed methods for coping.    

Norman Simms has just published the first volume of a new book, Jews in an Illusion of Paradise: Dust and Ashes (Cambridge Scholars Publisher.  Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, UK).  It is available from the publisher as well as and other online bookseller sites.  The second volume may be out before the end of this year    

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