The Sunday Times

March 25th, 2012

No tragedy is complete today without our hysterical emoting

The word unspeakable seems to have reversed its meaning. When truly unspeakable things happen, such as the shooting of Jewish schoolchildren in Toulouse last week, or the massacre of teenagers in Norway last year and of Scottish schoolchildren in Dunblane in 1996, one might imagine that those not directly concerned would have the decency to stay silent, while the bereaved confront their loss and the authorities try to discover what happened.

That used to be the British tradition. What happens now is quite the reverse: nobody seems able to stop speaking. In all these cases the horrifying news was greeted by a feeding frenzy, with people churning and thrashing in their anxiety to express an explanation or, best of all, a feeling.

Much the same was true of rather different tragedies, such as the loss of children in a bus crash in Switzerland or the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and of the shocking collapse on the pitch of the Bolton Wanderers footballer, Fabrice Muamba. People with no, or little, connection to what had happened simply couldn’t stop emoting hysterically.

When, for example, the news broke that a lone assassin had killed several people with a bomb in Oslo and then gunned down perhaps 70 young people on an island, every horrifying detail was picked over. Of course this unspeakable massacre was something that had to be spoken of, in the sense of being reported, but it was not necessary to dwell on every conspiracy theory, every statement from a politician who wanted to start a debate about immigration in Norway, every public figure who wanted to be seen displaying his tender heart and every detail that could be found of any known victim. Worst of all were the maps of the island showing where each body was lying, when some of them had not yet retrieved.

That last obscenity reminded me of the time of the killing of the children in Dunblane, when one newspaper printed a map of the town, marking all the houses in which a victim had lived. This was shameless rubbernecking.

Long before anyone could possibly know what lay behind the Norwegian atrocity, no matter how often the police said they did not have enough evidence to begin to explain what happened, we were titillated with theories. The same was true of the Toulouse killings. There was widespread speculation that the murderer was an anti-semite of the neo-Nazi variety, or that he was an all-purpose racist (since he had killed three soldiers of north African descent as well), and later that he was a crazed Islamic fundamentalist operating alone.

Nothing has been proved so far. But all the unnecessary theorising succeeded in distressing and dividing all the various “communities” who might be concerned, whether as victims or scapegoats. Meanwhile the candidates in the French presidential election vied with each other to make the most of it all. The point is that nobody understood what had happened and these conjectures served no obvious purpose except to scratch some public itch for sensation.

At the same time it seemed, as ever, cruelly disrespectful to the dead and their families to use such horror as entertainment. The right response to such atrocities is to respect the grief of the bereaved by saying only what must be said. Outsiders ought to wait for the facts to be known before holding forth about lessons to be learnt and wake-up calls.

Such calls are often cover-ups for the real motivation of the rubberneckers.

Something else is going on. As so often, a public interest argument is used as a fig leaf for a selfish private interest — in this case, a need to be personally involved with intense emotion in sensational circumstances, a private need to be part of a public moment of extreme drama.

When Muamba suffered his cardiac arrest on the pitch last weekend it was quite understandable that everyone around him, his fans as well as his family, should have been overwhelmed with shock. Millions of people like me who had never heard of him before then felt sorry and wished him well. But something quite different and much less honest took over, as it does more and more these days.

A mawkish sentimentality appeared, just as it did after the death of Diana. Manchester United and Wolverhampton Wanderers arranged a pre-match minute’s applause for Muamba, even though he was not dead but, mercifully, alive and getting better. Real Madrid players wore get-well-soon messages on their shirts and Gary Cahill of Chelsea dedicated a goal he scored to Muamba, his former team-mate, and revealed a T-shirt with the slogan “Pray 4 Muamba”, which was no doubt intentionally picked up by television cameras. Meanwhile saccharine messages buzzed around the blogosphere about how the response to Muamba’s illness had brought out the best in football and made people proud of the sport. With due respect to Muamba and his family, this is largely nonsense.

When Diana died, a man in a crowd said her death had meant more to him than the death of his own wife. After the Norwegian slaughter an American columnist claimed, quite absurdly, that “we are all Norwegians now”. These misguided comments are clear pointers to what people seem to want from moments of high public drama. They want to be part of it, not just to share in it. They want to identify with it, both emotionally and socially — both weeping and wearing the T-shirt, so to speak, no matter how little contact they had with the fallen hero or heroine, the tragic victim or the murdered child. Presumably this must be because this bad thing somehow makes them feel good.

It would take a social anthropologist to explain why. One could guess that it has something to do with the emotional poverty of our ordinary lives, our unmet needs for ceremonies and tribal allegiances. It could have something to do with our increasing need for celebrity and the hope that a little of the stardust of someone famous with whom we identify closely will fall upon us. It might be just a constant and growing need for attention, which is what such public dramas confer widely on those who exploit them for that purpose.

Whatever the explanation, it is hard to excuse: it is emotionally untruthful, it is emotionally unintelligent and it is emotionally incontinent — and all in the name of true feeling. Unspeakable, really.