Saturday, November 21, 2015

Selfies with Dead People

It’s been a few days now since the latest bombing in France, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I don’t usually think about things like that.

I remember 9/11 vividly, walking down the stairs on a morning in second grade to mushroom clouds on TV. I remember the moment of silence in a school assembly, and I remember the whispers and giggles I heard all around me in that moment. My classmates and I have been asked, nearly annually since then, to remember that day, and to write those memories down in various classes. So here is what I do not remember: the state of shock in which we apparently spent the rest of the day. Little girls crying for a thousand people they’d never met, dead in a situation they didn’t understand. The horrified five year old gasps as our principal explained. The moment when we all joined together in a perfectly silent moment of silence, united by our sorrow and fear. I think the people I know who say these things believe them. But I know they made them up, quietly and by accident, over the course of a dozen years. It’s a pretty story—as pretty as it gets went you’re talking about terrorists.

We were eight. It didn’t exactly touch us. The aftermath has, of course, for every moment of the last thirteen years. But that tragedy was not my tragedy, and in the years since then I have not spent much time paying attention to the real world. Fairy tales are happening, you know. So this, watching Paris live on an Irish television, Paris where I was staying a month ago, is the first time that terrorism has ever been quite real to me. And after a few minutes discussing the attack, the newscasters switched seamlessly to local sports and the question of whether or not the Northern Lights will be visible in Ireland.

And, okay. Paris is far away, and Ireland has its own stuff going on. But sports? Really?

I’m not actually mad at the Irish news station or anything. It’s not a big deal, probably, in the long run. They switched back to Paris as soon as there was something new to report. But it’s something I’ve been thinking about, and being bothered by, a lot lately.

The summer after my junior year of high school, I went on a class trip to Italy and Greece. And it was quite a trip. I have a lot of stories, some of which I’ve promised never to tell. But the one thing that has really stuck with me, in a quiet, insidious way, is the day we spent in Pompeii. The city itself was fantastic. But we ended our tour at the plaster casts of the people killed by the ash from Mt. Vesuvius. And people were still laughing, joking, having a good time. They took selfies with the casts.

Repeat, they took selfies with the remains of innocent people killed in a horrific tragedy two thousand years ago. And I was seventeen, and I was really shaken up about it. I’m still really shaken up about it, actually, but there were a few years there where I didn’t have much reason to think about it. And then I came to spend a semester travelling around Europe.

It started in France. We were studying poetry from World War I. Absolutely beautiful, absolutely heartbreaking. So we visited a few battlefields, a few war memorials. I walked through trenches, and I climbed down into craters left by bombs, and I thought about the poems we’d read, and how stupid and pointless the whole war had been. And people took pictures. So many pictures. Trenches, monuments, bunkers, gravestones. I didn’t. It felt weird. It felt wrong. We were walking on the ground where men had died, and we were talking and laughing like it was any other tour on any other day.

I did take one picture. The landscape around the trenches was fascinating, and I thought I might use the image as reference for a writing project or something later. But it didn’t really turn out, and I’m kind of glad. It was beautiful, but they still find bombs on that ground. I’m not sure it’s right to make it the backdrop of some fantasy.

About a week ago we were at the Titanic Museum in Belfast. And the actual museum was tasteful, tactful, and generally well done. But it shared a building with two Titanic restaurants and a Titanic gift shop. They were selling Titanic teddy bears. Hats with the name of the captain. Cheap plastic replicas of that one piece of jewelry from that movie.

“My Parents Went to the Titanic, and All They Got Me Was This T-Shirt.” Kid, be glad they got themselves back to you. There’s a Titanic studio across the street. Titanic cafes, Titanic nightclubs, guys. Everyone was freaking out, I guess because of the movie, and it was just weird.

We were in a gigantic monument to death and failure. I’m not sure the gift shop was sending an appropriate message.

So forget about the Irish newscasters. That doesn’t matter. It’s just what got me writing. Imagine people pausing, a week after 9/11, to take a selfie in the rubble. Imagine the outrage. The fact that a tragedy took place a hundred or a thousand years ago doesn’t mean that you can just stop regarding it a something worth dignity and respect. Dead bodies are not good selfie partners. A war memorial is not the place to have a photo shoot. The sinking of the Titanic does not need to be commemorated with teddy bears and bobble heads. People died here. People died. And you just photographed the gravestone because you thought the last name was spelled funny. Just stop, okay? Just stop.

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