Politicizing the Tragedy in Aurora
However we usually define tragedy, there’s something uniquely debilitating about those catastrophes that break into our lives for utterly arbitrary and senseless reasons. Indeed, traditional literary tragedy is often bearable because the pivotal moment of collapse has been foreshadowed and delayed and laden with meaning by much of the foregoing. Othello dies a victim of his own jealous and Iago’s cunning entrapment. Antigone worships the nobility of the martyrdom to which Creon eventually delivers her. However bad fictional losses may be, they are (usually) comfortably situated in a narrative that makes them sensible and even morally instructive.
But constructed, fictional tragedies must be thus precisely because lived tragedies almost never are. They rarely correspond to simple, reductive narratives. They never provide clear meaning or obvious future paths for action or reliable, redemptive solutions. This, by the way, is why humans are so interesting. We are the creatures who organize and determine the meaning of the world we inhabit, but ours is also a world that only partially responds to our attempts to shuffle things into place. That’s why even our constructed tragedies are open to interpretation. That’s why the “ultimate” meaning of Othello’s and Antigone’s situations is still in doubt. We decide what the world means and why things happen as they do, but we also find that our narratives are never totally comprehensive nor our explanations fully coherent.
And here’s a secret: no one really knows why. That’s why humans are so fond of storytelling, yes, but it’s also why they obsess over history and philosophy and even science. We’re not curious just because we’d like to better manipulate our environment to suit our needs. We’re also curious because we know just enough to know that our knowledge is relatively infinitesimal. Worst of all, our accumulated knowledge doesn’t appear to close—or even narrow—many of the biggest questions we’d like settled about the meaning of tragic moments. In many cases (cf. current bioethics debates), our increasingly sophisticated attempts to understand the world may even muddy the waters further. But it’s a double bind: we can only recognize (and be frustrated by) our stubborn ignorance because we do dimly perceive that a better understanding lurks just out of reach.
There are numerous explanations for why this might be so, and everyone has a favorite. Perhaps we understand dimly because of the ontological structure of human experience. Perhaps our epistemologically-driven anxiety is just a product of our bicameral minds. Perhaps we are actually approaching a technological “singularity” that will lead to sufficient knowledge that the big, tragic questions no longer trouble us. And so on and so forth.
As usual, my sympathies are with Reinhold Niebuhr’s view:
The fact of death threatens life with meaninglessness unless man is ‘saved by hope’ and understands life in such a way that neither his involvement in history nor his transcendence over it destroys the meaning of life…Life and history are filled with suggestions of meaning which point beyond themselves; and with corruption of meaning due to premature solutions.
This partial, ungainly knowledge is precisely the thing that makes tragedy possible. If we were wholly unaware of how the passing of experiences were connected to some unifying narrative, we would free to brush off the shootings in Aurora without a second thought. If we were fully confident that we knew the meaning of such events, we would be free to subsume the hurt under the transcendence that bigger, broader story. Unfortunately, very few of us can take comfort in the naïve blitheness of ignorance or the comfortable succor of knowing the whole.
On Niebuhr’s view, we both transcend and participate in history. Those who are certain that they have decoded a tragedy’s meaning are proudly preparing themselves to be mugged by reality. Forget history: daily life is littered with the failures of humans who put too much faith in their knowledge of what God expects of us (or, if you like, “what Life means”). In more familiar terms, their pride demonstrates that they have fallen prey to humanity’s fundamental, most original sin.
All of the foregoing suggests something useful for the days to come. As is customary, we’ve been urged not to “politicize” this particular tragedy. Taken in a certain way, this is obviously good counsel. This sort of violence is not partisan political behavior. It’s pathological. There’s nothing intrinsically “Democratic” or “Republican” or “Tea Party-esque” about this sort of outburst.
But there are other ways to conduct political debates. If human tragedy takes the form I’ve just sketched, we should abandon any hope of fully preventing such violence in the future. If we make gun ownership and ensuing training requisite for all American citizens over the age of 8, we will still have periodic, tragic violence. If we repeal the Second Amendment and replace it with “Peace and love, being necessary to the enjoyment of stable civil life, the right of the people to hug their familiars in their arms, shall not be infringed,” we will still have periodic tragic violence. No matter what we hope, policy changes prompted by the Aurora shootings will not save us from tragedy—not even this specific form.
Nonetheless, that is no reason to avoid the conversation. Humans are always enmeshed in the petty blindness of history, but they are also capable of stepping beyond the limits of their moment (if only for a moment) to work for the good and right. No solution will be conclusive, but we are still called to seek the best answers we can find.
Seen through that lens, the Aurora shootings demand to be politicized. They are a reminder that things in our country are not as clear and settled as they could be. Sadly, this is familiar turf—but that only adds urgency to the need to respond.