Caitlyn Luce Christensen
Thing that did not fit into my frame of understanding: the man with his legs blown off below the knee. I wanted only the close crop. His face appeared calmly composed. Then one night the full photograph appeared to me bloodily. A Samaritan in a cowboy hat pinched the long red string of artery shut as he kept pace besides the wheelchair. The expression from one version to the next was the same, but what looked like composure in the first became agony in the second. Mortality diminished to a half-centimeter space between forefinger and thumb. I was looking for a narrative one could call conventional. There has never been a story safe enough to live by.
None of These
This did not have much to do with dying: night work in the customer service department of an online woman's clothing store. I took my breaks at midnight in the warehouse parking lot. Sometimes you could see a thunderstorm rolling in from the west, lighting up the black sky to green. The only office talk had to do with the people who telephoned and what they said. "I am looking for a tutu patterned with cherries." "I am a double E, would this swimsuit fit over my breasts?" One night a mother wanted to know what to wear to her daughter's funeral. Sometimes a man wanted to know whether we had worn the lacy anklet socks, and did they feel good on our feet? He would pant. We would record the number and send out a department-wide memo with instructions not to answer. I punched out at 1 a.m. and drove to my boyfriend's apartment, where I was staying after moving back to Pittsburgh from Harlem (an ambiguous failure). I arrived by the time the bars were letting out. The hallway smelled like mildew. The bed was beneath a hot water pipe. Each afternoon I woke up sweating and he was already gone.
That was the summer a person brought his gun into a movie theatre, another into a temple; that was the summer before the winter a man would bring his gun into an elementary school. And that was the winter before the spring when a backpack abandoned at a marathon's finish line would explode, sending a constellation of shrapnel and nails whirling into the sky. The spring a tornado came to a town and leveled it. The spring a fertilizer plant combusted. That was the spring before the following summer of pictures of children lying still, wrapped in white. I didn't last in customer service more than six months (it wasn't "my jam" my manager said). But in my mind that whole year I was the voice at the end of the line when someone would call wondering why their package had not yet arrived. I was saying we would find whatever had become lost. I was saying that everything would be alright.
Avoidance is a temporary bandage. At the slightest dampening it becomes unstuck. So what – you make meaning. "To carry or put under," that is the etymology of suffering, as Christ carried his cross. There is a prominent idea that suffering transfigures. St. Sebastian with his eyes turned heavenward, his rapture in death nearing the orgasmic. In China the worst offenders were sentenced to slow slicing, or death by a thousand cuts, a knife methodically removing portions of the body over an extended period of time. (The traditional name was ling chi, a derivation of a word for a slow mountain ascent.) Or couldn't it be said the torture method was merely an acceleration of what has been happening all along, that is, a steady accumulation of cuts, a shortening of fibers, etcetera. I know this could be called cliché. The point is: an armless, flayed prisoner's face appears as exalted as any painting of Jesus Christ or the saints. The cuts carried over from life into whatever happened after, following the Confucian principle of xiao.
Call this age of maps. Stars may appear to have no sequence, but each quadrant of the sky moves in a particular pattern from hour to hour, season to season. The Minoans learned some are constant: the Great Bear, the Big Dipper, the Plough. Polaris gave them their North and South, and by drawing an angle from horizon to sky with a simple sextant, they could find their destination's latitudinal direction in any season, at any place on the open sea.
Those that insist upon evil: the snake in the garden, a terrorist fortress in Tora Bora (complete with bakery, hotel, hospital, library, and mosque)2, the Tutsis were cockroaches and deserved to die. Time and history have proven that evil is little more than a parable of circumstance, but as an idea evil provides an easy order. Gunsmoke was the kind of western in which the content of a man's character could be determined by the color of the hat he wore on his ride in to Dodge, and an organization of terrorist sleeper cells can be identified by Disneyland footage recorded wobblingly on a handheld camcorder. Prevention's paradigm maintains that if the worst can happen, it will. Sometimes the very absence of the devil justifies his presence, signifying the dark has temporarily outwitted the light.
Three brothers threatened their uncle's life over the ownership of a cow. One day the uncle, returning from town and carrying a shotgun he always used for self-protection when away from home, found the armed brothers on his farm. When his nephews attacked him, the man disarmed them, striking one with his gun and inflicting a wound from which the boy would later die. The Supreme Court ruled that the uncle was entitled to meet any attack in such a way that he had reasonable grounds to believe were necessary to save his own life.5
The Work Death's Business Takes
It was possible to participate in the exercise because the men did not measure their human ties to their victims to be of the same strength as their comrades' scorn. The businessmen, farmers, and plumbers who made up the German Reserve Police Battalion 101 found themselves unable to shoot straight. They ran into the nearby woods and vomited, weeping with shame and horror.6 This was in the woods near the Jewish village in Józefów, and their victims were elderly, and women, and children.
The third way of surviving is forgetting. In the days before the Boston Marathon bombing, there was a great deal of concern about what was happening in North Korea. Scientists had learned how to stick a nuclear weapon on top of a guided missile, which could maybe reach South Korea. In the days before the bombing, North Korean laborers failed to show for work at a factory in the demilitarized zone. This was taken as a warning sign of impending attack. But a series of disaster narratives interrupted one another. I didn't hear about North Korea anymore. Soon it was Syria. Congress and war crimes and executions and leaflets stapled to telephone poles. Then something else again. A freeze.
An article on drone strikes in Pakistan begins: "Do you remember what it felt like in America on 9/11?"7 A Pakistani father said the sound of the drone was like the incessant humming of a mosquito. "Because of the terror, we shut our eyes, hide under our scarves, put our hands over our ears," a mother said.8 What I remember most about September 11 is September 12, when there was nothing in the sky. But remembrance, as the counter to omission, turns something unknown into something we've known already. That's why every disaster after September 11 became an opportunity for Americans to reminisce, and situate a narrative within their own frame of understanding.
The boy who came upon executed bodies outside the wall of his ancient city, and at once wanted to see them and wanted to cover his eyes? When I finally came upon the photograph of the Boston marathon bombing, I did not turn away from the image of the man with his legs gone below the knee. No, I looked at it again and again, long enough to remember the spectacle after I turned away.
A Slowed Heart
It stills an animal, makes it harder to catch and kill. Opossums have evolved to feign death because it is easier to escape the hunter's grip when the hunter does not expect a struggle.10 Some Homo sapiens may have evolved to faint at the sight of blood because to an attacker, fainting is less threatening than a caveman who fights or flights; a faint communicates that one is not a threat and can be ignored.11 Fainting after becoming wounded creates a drop in blood pressure decreasing the likelihood of mortal blood loss or shock.12
I remember after hearing about the shooting in Aurora, I went straight inside to the customer service department and sat down at my telephone a whole hour early because I knew I would keep listening if I stayed in my car and I did not want to hear anymore. The other customer service representatives were discussing the shooting, where a four-month-old had been injured, and one girl asked, "What were the parents thinking, bringing a baby into that movie, anyway?" I felt a sort of horror at the question, more perhaps than I felt at the incident itself. But for the girl, one thing could not be omitted from the other. There was not supposed to be a massacre in the theatre. There was not supposed to be a baby in the theatre, either.
1 H. H. Dalai Lama, introduction to Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World. (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), xv.
2 Michael Wines, "Heavily Fortified ‘Ant Farms' Deter Bin Laden's Persuers," The New York Times, November 26, 2001. http://www.nytimes.com/2001/11/26/international/asia/26HIDE.html?pagewanted=print.
3 Katrin Bennhold, "Behind Flurry of Killing, a Potency of Hate," The New York Times, October 12, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/13/world/europe/behind-flurry-of-killing-potency-of-hate.html?_r=1&.
4 Aimable Twagilimana, The Debris of Ham: Ethnicity, Regionalism, and the 1994 Rwandan Genocide (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2003), quoted in Moise Jean, "The Rwandan Genocide: The True Motivations for Mass Killings," Emory Endeavors Journal 1, (2007) retrieved from http://history.emory.edu/home/assets/documents/endeavors/volume1/Moises.pdf.
5 Beard v. United States, 158 U.S. 550 (1895).
6 Christopher R. Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), 68.
7 Conor Friedersdorf, "‘Every Person is Afraid of the Drones': The Strikes' Effect on Life in Pakistan," The Atlantic, September 25, 2012. http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/09/every-person-is-afraid-of-the-drones-the-strikes-effect-on-life-in-pakistan/262814.
9 Aaron Cooper, "Drone Came Within 200 Feet of Airliner Over New York," CNN, March 5, 2013. http://www.cnn.com/2013/03/04/us/new-york-drone-report/index.html.
10 H. Stefan Bracha, "Freeze, Flight, Fight, Fright, Faint: Adaptationist Perspectives on the Acute Stress Response System," CNS Spectrums 9 (2004): 680.
11 Ibid, 683.
12 Ibid, 681.