On Storytelling and Remembrance

A.K Gupta Nov 30, 2006

How do you mourn a million deaths?

Human beings are all too adept at cataloguing and quantifying mass murder, but we are incapable of mourning collective loss. Mike Davis, writing about avian influenza in The Monster at Our Door, observes that some species of animals are capable of grieving for mass deaths, but not humans.

We need a reference point, an individual story. The Killing Fields, Dith Pran’s story of escape from the Khmer Rouge genocide, put a face on the deaths of up to 2 million Cambodians.

The Diary of Anne Frank made real the 11 million deaths of the Holocaust. One
of the most affecting displays in the Holocaust Museum is the room with a jumble of shoes. It allows us to grasp the enormity of the murder when we see thousands of pairs of shoes, each one taken from a unique life, itself just a fraction
of the total count.

The same technique is used to bring home the cost in American lives of the Iraq War, in the traveling “Eyes Wide Open” exhibit: A pair of combat boots is laid out for each U.S. death to date.

For the dead of September 11, makeshift memorials sprang up all over the city. The New York Times, in a monumental undertaking, published biographies of the nearly 3,000 dead.

But all deaths aren’t equal. There was little attempt by the government or
media to account for the dead of New Orleans, who they were, how they lived,
or even how many. This is even truer of deaths in the Third World. Most newsworthy deaths
in Latin America, Africa and Asia, those in dramatic conflict, pass unnoticed.

It took the Times years to report on the tens of thousands of farmers in India who had committed suicide because of land debts they could never hope to pay back.

When an American dies in a conflict, then it’s news: the murder of four American nuns in El Salvador, Benjamin Linder’s killing at the hands of the contras in Nicaragua and Rachel Corrie’s death by an Israeli bulldozer.

I thought about this when I heard that Brad Will had been killed at the barricades in Oaxaca. Seeing the first mainstream notice, a Reuters article, I knew the drill. Suddenly the news would take notice of a fivemonth-old struggle that it has hitherto shrugged off. An American, a journalist, a New Yorker, Brad in death gave the conflict significance where it didn’t need any.

The media are our collective eyes. When and how they cover an event can change history. The Western media love mass uprisings, at least when they imperil official enemies: Venezuela, Lebanon and Ukraine, for instance. But when the resistance isn’t coming from the elite, serving U.S. foreign policy or backed by the CIA, silence ensues.

Similar mass uprisings in Latin America, full of life, creativity and conflict, offer all the elements of a compelling story but receive minimal attention from the corporate press.

It is into these events that North Americans like Brad interject themselves, as reporters, witnesses and solidarity activists. They don’t have a billion-dollar corporation behind them, but many still produce stellar reporting. And occasionally, some become the story.

The irony of Brad’s death, like Rachel’s and others, is that the
world suddenly notices their reporting and the deaths of those around them that would have passed otherwise as a number: three killed here, 20 killed there, a hundred somewhere else.

I knew Brad only peripherally, but in 24 hours I learned more about his life than in the five years since I met him. There is now a burst of remembrance of Brad from his comrades and colleagues. But I wonder if there will be any attempt to tell the stories of the others who have died in Oaxaca over the last five months.

I would have paid little attention to the deaths of Emilio Alonso Fabian and Esteban Lopez Zurita had they not also been felled by government bullets the same day as Brad in Oaxaca. Yet I know almost nothing about them. I read Emilio was a teacher and saw photos of his intensely anguished family as they mourned coffinside. But that’s it. The problem is magnified when there is no personal connection. For too many, myself included, we may oppose empire but those who die by the U.S. government’s actions remain an abstraction.

How can we comprehend the deaths of 650,000 Iraqis? Through story-telling, which allows us to understand the world in a way that no political tract or philosophical tome can. Hearing the mundane and extraordinary details of people’s lives creates connections where there were none.

Yet in many parts of the world we lack access to such memories. Public remembrance is often a privilege.

Families in Nepal often don’t have a single photo to remember lost ones. In Afghanistan many must grieve in secret because it’s too dangerous to mourn a relative who died fighting Western forces. In Iraq thousands of families don’t even know if a loved one is dead and may never even find the body.

The power of the media is its ability to create public memory by choosing which stories to tell. It is a political act. Brad was motivated to tell the stories of those who would otherwise be forgotten. In turn, others are now telling stories not just of who Brad was but the struggles he witnessed, reported on and supported.

It’s important that we seek out the stories of others as well, those we don’t know, in order to understand both the individual loss and the collective loss they represent. It is the essence of the solidarity Brad and many others have given their lives for.

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