Stuck Together in an Era of Connectedness

How to navigate tragedy online? Show an affirming flame.

Chris Wattie / Reuters

Living a connected life is now inseparable from seeing unspeakable tragedies as they intrude suddenly but seamlessly into the same streams where we chat, work, and play.

On Monday, as a gunman began slaughtering scores on the Las Vegas strip, I sat safely at home, pricey headphones wrapped around my ears, watching a dog video on Twitter. Two clicks later I listened in too-high fidelity as strangers sought cover amid the rat-tat-tat of bullets; even as I felt an impulse to disconnect, as if the scale of the carnage called for a moment of respite or quiet reflection. I failed to look away from the stream of far-flung people absorbing the shock––and sharing their reactions.

Now that tragedy reaches us as it unfolds, across continents, broadcast into our homes in 4K or rendered on Retina displays that glow in the darkness of our bedrooms, the pattern of how we process it has become disconcertingly familiar. I climbed into bed and hugged my wife extra tight. My mind raced. I slept, finally. I awoke, then remembered. All was dreadfully familiar, for the massacre had not been a nightmare, and emotionally raw Americans were expressing anger at one another.

Anger at the people who called for “thoughts and prayers.” As if divine intervention is the answer! Anger at the people diminishing prayer amid tragedy. Don’t they get faith?

Anger at the people intent on or opposed to processing the event as a political happening; anger at those who desperately want more gun control or who just gave to the NRA; anger at those who responded to the mass shooting with assumptions about the killer; anger at a lawyer who got fired for saying she had no sympathy for the victims, because they listened to country music and probably voted for pro-gun Republicans; anger at those who responded to the carnage with grim or ironic humor.

Like everyone else, I have my own policy views, political sympathies, opinions about good taste and propriety, and preferred approach to public comportment amid tragedy. At times I felt anger welling up as instincts that would guide me in person failed online.

But I try to avoid expressing anger at any honest reaction in such moments, keeping in mind that we all bear tragedy differently; and that among the dead in Las Vegas and the heroes who shielded the living were people who would have reacted in all those ways had the atrocity happened someplace else. I try to be forgiving even of ghastly jokes or callous comments, because many are much better than what they say when suddenly subject to horrors that can scarcely be conceived; insofar as they behave badly, it is rooted in the trauma of helplessly watching the terrible specter of worldly evil.

We’re stuck together in this era of connectedness; we’ll react to many future tragedies together: mass shootings, natural disasters, mass casualty accidents, terrorist attacks, even wars. Human difference ensures that many will have different notions of how one ought to react, and that some will behave badly by most of those standards. To be forgiving of others while trying to be constructive is our charge.

In “September 1, 1939,” W.H. Auden wrote that humans are lost as in a haunted wood.

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

“We must love one another,” he wrote, “or die.”