When I was still in high school, I went with my mother to see George Carlin do stand up in Las Vegas. It was a bad idea. I had known him as that kinda funny old dude who popped up in movies like Dogma. While I knew his reputation as the man who made “the seven words you can’t say on television” famous, I assumed that in retrospect his act would appear tame. Perhaps not Sinbad tame—more like watching Midnight Cowboy. I quickly discovered that although Carlin can tone it down to play grandpa in the movies, his act was not for the grandkids. I endured an hour and a half of not laughing at funny jokes, lest my mother see me.
After Carlin finished his regular act, he told us he wanted to try out some new material. It was part of an HBO special entitled “I Kinda Like It When a Lot of People Die”. He pulled out a piece of paper and read from it, just to get an idea of which parts might work and which to cut out. Although the title was obviously tongue in cheek, the material nonetheless explored humankind’s fascination with death and mass tragedy. It was not entirely unserious, and Carlin had interesting takes on death, including a bit on the surreal nature of planning one’s suicide. The special’s name was later changed to “Complaints and Grievances” because of the September 11 attacks. Name change or no, Carlin had a point. Death in the United States and the world at large is a commodity, along with the form it often comes in, violence.
I lost a friend to that violence this week. Her name was Elif. She was 8 months pregnant—two weeks away from her due date—when she and her partner, Ross, were shot to death inside a Nairobi shopping mall.
Death in the United States and the world at large is a commodity, along with the form it often comes in, violence.
The story as it unfolded for me was quite different from the story that unfolded for Elif and Ross. Just before I went to bed on Saturday, I saw a friend post an article from BBC on Facebook about an attack on the Westgate Shopping Center. I had been to that mall on my first trip to Nairobi. It was like a slice of America in East Africa, just what I needed after a year in Sudan and Uganda. It was clean, “safe” relative to the streets of Nairobi, and it had a sushi restaurant. Every expat in East Africa has been to that mall, which is why I clicked on the article; as a Kampala-based expat for over four years, I had a frame of reference. The BBC was reporting that five people had been killed in a robbery attempt at one of the stores inside the mall. I showed it to my fiancée, Trisha, who I met in Uganda and who has travelled even more than I have within East Africa. We chatted about how the article was poorly written—going back and forth between the present and past tense. I offered the comment that it might be ongoing. We figured, too, that the death count was possibly attributable to poorly-trained security guards who indiscriminately opened fire on the thieves. We’ve seen our share of watchmen go to sleep with their heads resting on the muzzles of their guns. We shrugged our shoulders, said goodnight and went to sleep.
When I woke up the next morning, my Facebook feed told me the robbery was actually “a terrorist attack”. News reports had the death toll up to 29. I told Trisha there were hostages inside. “You’re kidding me,” she said. We checked the photos coming out of the ordeal. A New York Times photographer was nearby when the shooting started. He captured some of the first scenes of Kenyan security forces trying to retake the mall from the militants. His photos were bloody and brutal; naturally, they were fascinating. Victims lay in pools of their own blood as armed personnel scanned the scene. Women huddled with their children in fear, hiding from their attackers. One of the best was a soldier taking cover behind a larger-than-life cutout of Matt Damon’s character from the movie Elysium. The movie takes place in a future where the haves and have-nots are physically separated. The former live in squalor on a congested Earth, while the latter live on a manmade Eden in the sky. The cutout of Damon shows him carrying a gun across his chest, ready to wage battle against the world’s elite. The militants no doubt felt they were waging their own battle between the haves and have-nots.
By the time we went to bed that night the body count had doubled and there were still hostages. The ordeal was front page international news.
The next morning I woke up early to do work. Whereas those inside the Westgate Mall were concerned with survival, my most pressing matter of business was checking the football (i.e. soccer) scores from Sunday night. Scanning the stats on ESPN, I groaned at the bad ending to my promising week of fantasy football. I still wasn’t ready to get to work, though, so my mind sought distraction. The Westgate shooting provided it. I logged in to BBC and Facebook simultaneously. Facebook was hopping with posts from my Kampala friends. I stopped short on one from my friend Will. It seemed like he had lost someone, but I was confused because I recognized the name. It was Elif’s. Comments of support stacked up against his post—people saying how sorry they were. I went to Elif’s wall. It was plastered with condolences to her and Ross. I scrolled down through the mass of postings until I found a post on her wall from someone saying her and Ross were in the mall during the shooting and still unaccounted for. I scrolled back up. Fears had turned to facts.
. . .
Elif and I weren’t close, but we were friends. She was in my Kampala circle and I expected to see her at friends’ barbecues and out on the town. She moved away from Kampala about a year before me but her heart never left East Africa. She and Ross had hopped over the border to try out Dar es Salaam. The last time I saw her was by chance. Trisha and I were eating breakfast at an expat hangout when Elif dropped by. I hadn’t known she was in town. She was an hour early for brunch with our friend Lisa and had planned to bide her time with some work she was doing for her employers, the Clinton Foundation. We were in the mood for another coffee, so we asked her to pull up a chair and we chatted. I learned a lot about Elif in that hour. We were on our way to Bali to start a new life and, as it turned out, she used to live in Indonesia. And, like Trisha, she was a big time yogi. She kept telling us how much we would love Bali. She was just as excited about our move as we were.
Elif was six months pregnant at the time. If you didn’t see her baby bump (hard to miss), you would’ve still known because she didn’t have a cigarette the entire time. Elif loved her wine and loved drinking it with a cigarette in hand. She was, after all, European—she embraced her vices. The baby, however, had shifted her priorities.
“Are you going back home to have the baby?” we asked. She told us no—the Netherlands is big into home births but she didn’t have a real home to give birth in there anymore. She was going to Nairobi, where she thought it would be much easier to have the birth she wanted. This led to an entirely new conversation, as Trisha is studying to become a doula.
Elif and Ross were meeting with their own doula on the morning they were killed. She posted on Facebook:
Elif’s death hit me hard because just the night before I had been consuming the news story as though it was a movie. I had scanned through the bloody photos out of morbid curiosity, allowing the surging death toll to titillate me, as it was meant to. I realized that as a species, we do, in fact, kind of like when a lot of people die. I’m not suggesting that we are inclined to wish ill upon people—far from it. I spent two days waiting for Elif and Ross to hop on Facebook and explain that they were okay—it was all just a big misunderstanding. But that’s the thing, I kept thinking about Elif and Ross. Up until their deaths, everyone else was just a number.
I spent two days waiting for Elif and Ross to hop on Facebook and explain that they were okay—it was all just a big misunderstanding.
This makes me feel tremendous shame. I don’t believe I’m alone in feeling this way. As a species we consistently invent ways to desensitize ourselves to violence. In gladiatorial times it was by making a social distinction between audiences and participants. The gladiators were slaves, prisoners (and sometimes paid, if desperate, volunteers) so it was “okay” to watch them die as punishment. Ethnic cleansing often begins with attempts to paint an ethnic group as sub-human, justifying murder by portraying the other as no different from cattle. In modern times, we use media and movies to numb us.
The desensitization starts with film, where violence is employed for spectacle. It’s no longer a tool to make us feel fear or anxiety about the characters’ situation. It is used because people like watching it. Usually, it’s the bad guys getting killed. We’re mostly alright with that, even those of us who are pacifists. It satisfies an in-built urge for justice. More and more, however, violence is used willy-nilly. In The Avengers (spoiler alert), half of New York City is digitally levelled in the climactic scene. In this year’s Man of Steel (spoiler alert), it is Metropolis being destroyed. The movies say to us: Take a handful of popcorn and watch some more buildings crumble to the ground. People are inside, but they’re fictional, so it’s okay.
Violence in film is no longer a tool to make us feel fear or anxiety about the characters’ situation. It is used because people like watching it.
The people in Nairobi felt fictional to me as well, until I found out that I knew some of them. The news story was just like any other story. Each time my imagination began picturing the scenario as a movie, I felt even more shame. Because I’m tired of it. I’m tired of the body counts, both fictional and real. I’m tired of the energy we place on destruction, even when it’s merely imagined. I’m tired of accepting that violence sells papers just as well as it sells movies. I’m tired of not caring when people I don’t know die.
You see, I don’t want to like when a lot of people die, not even a bit.