Talk­ing about evil is hard. It involves at least two para­doxes. Here’s the first. On the one hand, to denounce evil is an eth­i­cal act. It is to affirm our deep­est val­ues and to com­mit our­selves to pre­vent­ing acts that dehu­man­ize oth­ers. On the other hand, to denounce evil can be an uneth­i­cal act. It is a way of demo­niz­ing; it is, pre­cisely, to dehu­man­ize another. Here’s the sec­ond para­dox: On the one hand, we need to the con­cept of evil to philo­soph­i­cally and eth­i­cally dis­tin­guish acts that shock our con­sciences, acts that are not ade­quately encom­passed by words like bad, wicked, or wrong. The con­cept of evil clar­i­fies. On the other hand, the con­cept of evil con­fuses, pre­vents think­ing. We imag­ine evil is other than human, beyond under­stand­ing, almost mys­ti­cal. This lets us off the hook, lets us deny our own capac­ity for evil, and stops us from ana­lyz­ing the very human, very com­mon causes of it.

- James Dawes: The Guts of Atrocity

I have never quite known what to react in the wake of tragedy. Say­ing too much almost feels too opin­ion­ated, and say­ing too lit­tle almost feels to insin­cere. I remem­ber my first encounter five years ago with a per­sonal tragedy and death was uncon­trol­lable laugh­ter. Appar­ently my ‘cop­ing’ mech­a­nism then, was to try to see the humor­ous side of the story. Highly inap­pro­pri­ate. But now, over the past week, I am find­ing no humor that can help me cope as I watch Kenya bal­ance a grow­ing sad­ness of a nation, the anger of their cit­i­zens and the anguish of loved ones as ter­ror­ists stormed an upscale mall in Nairobi claim­ing over 60 lives.

As emails, phone calls, texts and social media updates came pour­ing in, the irony is not lost on me on how tragedies hap­pen every­day around the world and yet, why is it that this one just seems so much more real. As my emo­tions slide between the con­tin­uum of “why” and “shock”, a strange ver­sion of this Hier­ar­chy of Trauma began to emerge. As I scroll through the news for updates on Nairobi on that day, and through­out the week, it dawned on me that hun­dreds of peo­ple die and are affected by con­flicts around the world. In Pak­istan, 81 peo­ple per­ished in a church sui­cide bomb­ing. In Nige­ria, over 500 per­ished in ter­ror­ist related vio­lence in the north of the coun­try, and the on-going Syria cri­sis has claimed tens of thou­sands of lives. Coun­tries and com­mu­ni­ties that I can’t even com­pre­hend who and where — are suf­fer­ing. Yet, why my heart aches the most for my Nairobi home and only for a fleet­ing moment of empa­thy for the news in Pakistan.

And sud­denly it struck me, trauma and grief isn’t a com­pe­ti­tion or a hier­ar­chy. We each grieve for dif­fer­ent losses, in our own way and in time. There is no trauma that is supe­rior to, lesser, greater, less shock­ing, bet­ter cov­ered, or any other com­par­a­tive phrase, than the suf­fer­ing of any indi­vid­ual or com­mu­nity. All we can do, is know that even if your expe­ri­ence does not have a chap­ter in other sto­ries of con­flict and trauma, it still a part of our story as human­ity as a whole.

Think­ing of you.

***

Selected pieces that pro­vide dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives on the Nairobi incident:

1) Gen­eros­ity of cit­i­zens in dona­tions for the victims

2) NY Times on the Value of Suffering 

3) A Trib­ute to a Friend: Ravi

4) Aung San Suu Kyi: the Free­dom from Fear

5) A beau­ti­ful piece in The Nation on forgiveness

6) Nan­jala Nyabola in Al-Jazeera on Keep­ing the Nairobi inci­dent in perspective 

7) An inter­view with author, James Dawes on his new book: Evil Men - a col­lec­tion of dia­logues with war crim­i­nals from the Sec­ond Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945)