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Guest Post: Silence is not an option

By Catherine Bonier

Silence is not an option. Something must be done. A tragedy. Children are gone. The internet is ablaze with righteous anger. The news cycle begins and the story in every detail is unavoidable. Experts analyze each fact and angle, and politicians promise a response. Social media is the answer. We post images as badges of belief – a beautiful young teacher is a hero, a survivalist mother is to blame. There is no time to waste. The horror amplifies the issues – guns, mental health care, violence. We must act now. We must harness raw emotion. Anything else would be cowardly, shameful. All we know is that this window of fear and opportunity will soon snap shut. We will forget. So we must make the dead march quickly for our arguments, our agendas.

Who is to blame for this post-traumatic stress society, this short attention span theater? We blame our political and religious opponents. We blame society and the media. In truth, we traumatize ourselves. We make ourselves watch, we stoke our own sorrow, our shock, our anger, caught up in one whirlwind and then the next. We discuss the details. We post. We text. We know the map, the type of weapon, the heroes and villains. We are all experts in the moment. We argue and we bond. Perhaps we cling to this celebration of tragedy because we can’t find anything else that we can believe in all together at once.

This is an illness. It is blindness. Can we stop? Can we sit, each one of us alone and in silence, and feel this for what it is? Can we know this event not through a barrage of information and emotion, but by getting intimately familiar with the texture of tragedy, the feeling of devastation, of helplessness, of suffering? This is a crushing loss, but only unusual because it is so nightmarishly photogenic. We can’t grapple with the horror of thousands killed annually in Detroit, Baltimore, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Oakland. These are too big to bring into focus, but we can rise up for a few news cycles to spew and digest outrage when the kill ratio is focused in time and space, and hits an empathic demographic. We see only the fragment – like understanding electricity only when lightning strikes, not noticing it flows through all the walls and wires. The problem is that each time we dance to the tune of shock and awe, we train ourselves to respond only to the most brutal and fleeting of stories. The flare of the drama burns so bright that the larger world in which it happens fades to grey, hard to see, intangible, impossible to engage. The actual tragedy that was fuel for the fire is lost to the blaze, and complex issues and conversations are charred and discarded.

Something must be done. We must limit our diet of details. We must share the burden of grief and recognize and honor this loss – singular and important, even as one bright star in a constellation of violence. We must train ourselves to stop, to feel, to think, to remember, and to act from that place. Silence is the first step.

Catherine Bonier is a theorist and writer on the subject of history, health, and cities. She teaches urban and architectural history and design at the University of Pennsylvania.

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