National horrors like Boston, or Newtown, bring us together in our grief, unite us in our condemnation, stun us, and momentarily silence us because we agree on the brutality. We draw on a collective comfort. When the violence is the kind that is collectively mourned, no focus will rest on the shortness of the women’s running shorts. No one will say because the women voluntarily went to Boston and ran in the marathon they were asking to be blown up. Here’s the thing. We have a contradictory and intimate relationship with violence.
There is the type of violence we mourn and are horrified by, there’s also the type we sanction, sanitize, justify — in life, love, work, sports. We separate that violence according to who the victims are and who perpetrates it in specific ways. We unite in our mourning for the victims of some violence, but we tend to be divided, hostile and accusatory in the face of others. For most of us, violence is relative. Who gets to be the victim? Who is accused of being the perpetrator?
Violence occupies an emotional space; it is at once familiar and horrifying and sanguine. It is individual and institutional. We don’t respond to sexual violence the way we do with the violence of Boston or Newtown, for example. We are not all Americans when a woman or girl is raped or sexually assaulted; we are good girls and bad ones. We will not collectively mourn the shock to her body, the distress, the trauma, and its potential legacy. We will engage in insisting on knowing her potential role in that violence, we will defend the individual perpetrator of that violence, and we will be divided. But the act of violence in Boston produces different responses. We won’t question any of the women’s rights to be in that public space dressed in shorts or in any way suggest that their clothing or presence might arguably be interpreted as an invitation for an act of domestic terrorism. We will agree the perpetrator deserves to face consequences, the full weight of the law. We will not defend the perpetrators right of free and peaceful assembly, we will agree that his freedom should be curtailed.
We will defend the 1st Amendment right of a newspaper when it spews emotional violence masquerading as comedy about an Oscar-nominated brown girl reducing her to a “cunt” — a body part as The Onion did with Quvenzhane Wallis. We will not collectively condemn this emotional violence but engage in 140-character defenses of the 1st Amendment and mockingly Tweet to the constituency of the outraged to pipe down and chill — it’s only comedy. We will, in no way, defend the violence that occurred in Boston, however.
We will mourn the black bodies who came from far and wide to take part in a marathon that goes back to 1897 — provincial and global — as part of an institutional space to be celebrated, respected and revered. The humanity of the black marathon runner will be counted, not disregarded. In this moment, those black bodies morph into our national identity; they are momentarily American bodies with shared goals, ambitions, and dreams. Yet, we are never all American when a black man falls victim to the institutional violence of the state; we are prosecutors, interrogators of his behavior, questioning him, his actions, his words, his intentions, defending the institution. We are divided. We are accusatory. We are hostile. We are defensive when the state enacts violence upon black bodies.
Our horror post-Newtown or Boston is tangible; we can taste it, feel it, and relate to it. Our dismissal of the violence suffered by children on the streets of the south side of Chicago and other urban (and mostly black, brown, and working poor) neighborhoods across the country is equally tangible. We are not allAmerican when it comes to the violence of poverty. We measure, judge, label individuals and communities marked by the violence of economic disenfranchisement. We do not collectively raise our voices against the institutions that contribute to maintaining poverty and inequity in our country.
Our relationship with violence is exactly that, a relationship. We are married to our version of violent events; we are divorced from certain folk’s experiences of violent events. We negotiate what we believe, whom we believe, of whom we are skeptical and who is a liar. We have wakes and obits and sadness in 140 characters on Twitter or FB threads. We may be outraged that this piece would even be written, dismissing it as inappropriate. You maybe right. The real tragedy? So am I.
Our relationship with violence needs ’emotional justice’ — the untangling of a societal and generational inheritance of untreated trauma, this space where we are handed the job of teasing out which violence is which and navigating institutions, systems, individuals and society accordingly. This is our world. What are we willing to do to change our relationship with violence?
NYC Radio Host, Playwright, Author
Follow Esther Armah on Twitter: www.twitter.com/estherarmah