I have spent the seven days since it happened trying to understand. I’m sure you have too. The internet is to blame, gun laws are to blame, white supremacists are to blame, our leaders are to blame. Never I am to blame. But of course I am. We all are.
Perhaps like me, you have trouble taking in the fact that 200 people watched this as it was happening and didn’t tell anyone, that thousands more watched it before anyone said anything to the company that carried it, that Facebook removed 1.5 million uploads in 24 hours. Not one madman; millions.
In the court when he came to be charged, he smirked. He is small, muscled, as if he has long felt a need to defend himself or make himself bigger in the world. He makes an okay signal with his bound hands and smirks, according to journalists who were there. I think a person who could do that has succumbed to a darkness deeper than death. Is that where we are going?
Perhaps these first decades of the twenty-first century will be looked on in future as a second dark age, the years in which we stopped demonstrating the social cohesion required for a species to survive, in our politics, our beliefs, our lives, and we forgot kindness. Violence is normalised. Shouting is discourse. We have made an extraordinary technological leap and then used it to connect and amplify darkness. We are getting very good at it. We listen only to ourselves and those like us. We are outraged. We hate other.
We don’t start life that way. Listen to a baby laugh. We start life looking for light and we are curious. I have a son. He is sixteen, neither adult nor child. One of his friends watched the video and shared it in a chat. I worry about my son. I worry about his friends. What do we have to inoculate them? They are the canaries down the mine of the new ways we have of communicating, of seeing. Platitudes? Internet rules? Certainly not the religion I grew up with whose leaders have shown total disregard for children, have harmed children.
Oddly, and this will seem too small, I think what we have is the humanities. In schools, we have history, economics, geography, philosophy and especially literature. In university, the rest. The humanities develop understanding, critical thinking and empathy, qualities that oppose hatred and ignorance. I see these qualities burgeoning in my son. I see how much tending they need to grow among the noxious weeds he finds online. The humanities can help us understand our differences. They are the only thing I know that can other than spending time with people who aren’t us, walking a mile in their shoes as Atticus encouraged us to do. Not many of us do that either.
Except in New Zealand this last week where millions have responded to darkness with light. Think of the biker gangs who are standing guard at mosques today, the vascular surgeon in tears describing, as the pinnacle of his career, an operation on a four-year-old wounded by bullets, relieved he saved her life. Think of a Prime Minister who could tell a school student how she feels; she feels sad.
It’s all we’ve got right now, those people responding with their light. And strangely, it’s more than enough. We know this. New Zealand, which might well be the true home of Frodo and Samwise, is showing us.