“We Cannot Guarantee It Won’t Happen Again”

Approaching Uncertainty

PrecariousnessIt has been an emotionally harrowing weekend. The July 20 tragedy in Aurora, Colorado, opened it. The Oslo remembrance concert for those slain last July 22 in Norway closed it.

In the span between the two, the shock in the United States at the Dark Knight Rises premiere shooting began to move into the grieving process, for the community, state, and nation. It is a precarious emotional space. Confusion, disbelief, and anger dominate. No one knows yet, if we ever will, what went on in this man’s mind. Tension is high as information – both useful and distracting – floods the media: from heartbreaking accounts of the scene and biographies of the victims, to appalling first glimpses into the killer’s planning, to grubby detail-mongering ranging from analysis of the film’s sales in the aftermath to reports on the shooter’s dating preferences.

A lot of it we don’t need to know. But faced with the information, many feel the pressure to react. So Facebook buzzes with memorials, frustrated emoting, and debates. Even celebrities tweet condolences.


When I found myself too closely following a Facebook friend’s lengthy discussion of gun control, I reached the point in my own reactivity where I had to switch off the information channels and get away. I was fortunate not only that I could do so – that the grief for me is not intimate, as it is for the victims’ families – but that I had a place to center.

This Sunday marked the conclusion of a unique series of dances performed in the wooded areas of Wissahickon Creek Valley in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park: “Wissahickon Reunion,” a cycle of four seasonal performances of choreographer and performance practitioner Merián Soto’s branch dances.

StruggleOn her Web site, Soto describes the performance practice of her branch dances as “the detailed sequencing of movement through inner pathways; the investigation of gravity through dynamic shifting into balance and alignment; and the investigation of speed including very slow movement approaching stillness.” The dancers’ exploration requires, and teaches, attention and patience – not least in being aware of their presence in the wooded areas off the trail. The observer becomes sharply aware of her own preoccupations, the tendency to hurry toward an end result. It is not unlike missing the chipmunk nibbling by the fallen tree in our determination to pursue a determined agenda.

The branch dances concentrate the artists and audiences – who may include wandering hikers who discover the dance playing out around them – on the intimate, delicate contact point between body and branch. Underneath it must be the willingness to trust that if that point is lost, it is not a failure; that the practice has importance in and of itself, not in its perfection. And the interaction frees the mover of predictability.

The circumstances of the moment are critical. The unforeseen fades as a concern in the practice of aligning oneself in awareness of what is there, right now, and what one is doing with it.


The strange notion that we can “predict and prepare for the unforeseen” – an utter offense to editors – has taken root in certain sectors of our society. (Note: the nature of “unforeseen” is that you didn’t see it coming. Once you have predicted it, you have foreseen it.)

A Google search turned up the appalling phrase verbatim in two articles: one on Forex trading, the other on “succeeding” at your athletic workout. (Given the global economy, financial traders either should know better or are guilty of zero attention to what they “predict.”) Yet it permeates congressional hearings on national security and media criticisms of tragic occurrences. It guides policy and accompanying expenditure on “preparedness”; and the tactics that come into play “insuring against the unforeseen”foster a culture of anxiety, suspicion, blame, and guilt.

Police flierWhen I returned from Norway this summer, the day after my arrival in Philadelphia I went to my local bank to deposit a check. As I was filling out the slip, a pile of fliers on the counter caught my eye and almost caused me to choke. Apparently, my city police department was exhorting me and all in my area to report to them “any information, even if it appears insignificant,” of “suspicious activity.” Among the warned-against activities were “taking pictures of infrastructures,” “taking notes,” and “making maps.”

Does the photographer who decides the complex of bridges over the Schuylkill River makes an interesting study in geometry qualify as “suspicious”? The writer who has a thought, but not a smartphone, and grabs the old-fashioned notepad? The neighbor sketching directions to the expressway exit for the bewildered visitor? Are all these to be interrogated by passers-by and sensitive residents as to the validity of their actions? (I still recall a highly nervous neighbor in the 1980s reporting three postgraduate students who were drinking milkshakes on one’s steps as a “knife-wielding gang” to local officers. They were under 30, which presumably qualified them.) What of neighbors who are in an ongoing dispute with one another, and see this as a grand opportunity to exercise some spite by casting suspicion?

In a city whose homicide rate in January 2012 exceeded the number of days in the month and where neighborhood newspapers complain about inconsistent police responses, the “guilty until proven innocent” approach to note-taking and photography is hardly likely to go down well. (Not to mention that they seem to have a very low-tech notion of potential terrorists.)

The notice represents another, and a rather silly, discharge in the building of a globally reactive security culture. In a similar frantic vein was the report, following the Aurora shooting, that AMC Theatres will no longer allow costumed viewings.

ReachingUnfortunately, a costume was not the problem in Colorado – and banning them is unlikely to do more than increase general feelings of restricted freedom, oppression, and fear. It is these feelings, more than memo pads and superhero tights, that should be in focus.


Citing former Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland’s assertion that “we must actually realize we are vulnerable,” Norwegian columnist Shabana Rehman Gaarder – currently in the United States, surrounded by coverage of Colorado – found herself particularly reminded this Sunday that “we cannot guarantee that July 22 won’t happen again.” Yet in her commentary for NRK, as she pondered Utøya and Aurora and too many other such acts, she asserted, “But even if we are vulnerable, we can guarantee something else: We will never give up hope.”

The one-year anniversary observations of Norway’s tragedy presented a strong symbol of that determination, while connecting with the bereavement most continue to suffer. A 22-year-old survivor of the Utøya massacre, Renate Tårnes, returned to the island to sing movingly Kaizers Orchestra’s song “Hjerteknuser” (Heartbreaker) for her lost sweetheart. At the Oslo concert, the host read from children’s tributes asserting love of their country and compassion for their fellow citizens. Hip-Hop musicians, folk musicians, and authors not only expressed the country’s feelings but represented its diversity. Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg remembered the deceased “with gratitude” and called on the nation to “honour the dead by celebrating life. Bruce Springsteen and band partner Steven Van Zandt (star of the Norwegian-American TV series Lilyhammer) performed “We Shall Overcome,” and Norwegian singer-songwriter Lillebjørn Nilsen closed the remembrance with “Children of the Rainbow” – his translation of Pete Seeger’s “Rainbow Race” that has become Norwegians’ solid demonstration of resistance to the hatred behind the killings. (Several clips from the Minnekonsert made available from NRK appear at the end of this blog as long as the network maintains them.)

The United States certainly needs to discuss gun control. But I believe we need to discuss it, and the whole security culture, in touch with the dominant attitude of fear that has grown in our society and our world. Unlike wars fought on the ground, there is no forecast end to the war on terror, the war on crime, the war on drugs. We have created a series of never-ending battles demanding more and more resources, both material and emotional.

TouchSimply calling for bans on purchases of weapons evades confronting the fear that weapons owners live under – including fear of an increasingly security-preoccupied government that perpetually enacts more scrutiny of its citizens’ activities, demands unequal accountability, and pours taxpayer money into agencies that have taken on an eerie, inscrutable life of their own. Conversely, asserting that “guns don’t kill, people do” while resisting any examination of gun sellers and purchasers evades addressing the responsibility all gun owners share for assuring their “people” are accountable and for fostering a nation of people who won’t kill.

A balance point between the extreme of a hoped-for security from gun violence and the extreme of fear of oppression and blaming others has to be approached before a reasonable legal response to gun control can take place.

On a more crucial level, I believe the culture must consider the implications of its hunger for security, and the validity of the marketing promise that it ever can be delivered. Life is, in fact, uncertain. To deny that is to devalue the freedom we claim to cherish by burdening it with unrealistic demands for predictions and solutions – and by burdening its citizens with suspicion of one another rather than compassion for each other, with fear and anxiety that hinders them from daring the mistakes and the uncertainty that also underlie innovation, exploration, and development.

It is in taking these risks, facing uncertainty, and putting hope above fear that we grow. It is by practice, not instant success, that we realize our potential. It is by building bridges to others, not by walling them out, that we become genuinely free.

As Oslo Mayor Fabian Stang simply but eloquently said, “The best answer to all acts of cruelty is love.”











2 thoughts on ““We Cannot Guarantee It Won’t Happen Again”

  1. Suutzi

    I agree that fear and anxiety are not helpful to the spirit of human invention or creativity. Or to public discourse and policy debate.

    In order to lower my levels of fear and anxiety, I’ve decided to watch less “news” especially the local stuff; allow harrowing statistics like the homicide rate to glance off my shoulder; and resist the temptation to find easy scapegoats.

    Instead, I am choosing to give every human being with which I interact, the “benefit of the doubt”. I’ve experimented with smiling at people on the street; amazingly, many people smile back at you!

    I offer an example. At the CVS yesterday, I noticed that a physically-challenged older African-American man was doing “double duty” – both stocking shelves and running to the cashier in order to check customers out. I say “running” but actually he had a very significant limp and his left arm and hand appeared to be withered. As I waited my turn for check out, I wondered about him: did he have a stroke? did the tattoos on his forearm bear a Vietnam War veterans’ insignia and had he served in our military there? how did he perform his job given his age (over 60) and his physical limitations? Naturally, the guy was a little slow in performing the cashier duties (which was exacerbated by the CVS photo machine being down, as he had to hand-count one customer’s photo prints). Given his circumstances, all I kept thinking is “this guy is doing the best he can”, and I admired him for it.

    A woman behind me, however, started making noise – those loud sighs and grumblings we hear when people encounter “slow/bad customer service”. I turned to her, smiled and said “I think he’s doing the best he can”. At first she recoiled, but then her face changed, smoothed out, and she responded “I guess you’re right. And at least he’s employed.” We then stood for the next 5 minutes, reflecting on the minor inconvenience to ourselves and the innate nobility of this gentleman.

    • Joanna Mullins Post author

      The illustration you offer is well chosen, Suutzi. I think we all struggle with impatience, which may lead us to make assumptions though allowing questions to arise is the more informative course. How little we actually know and understand “for a fact,” despite slipping into speaking as if we do! Staying in the moment, asking, and interacting – thereby opening up possibilities, rather than closing them down with pre-established judgment – can produce wonderful discoveries, and I thank you for your example of one such.

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