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Best of 2011: Silence for Norway's dead

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Hoddle St MassacreWhile Norwegians mourn I am reminded of 25 years ago when I lived on Hoddle Street in Melbourne. On a quiet Sunday night Julian Knight committed Australia's first urban massacre on the street outside my home. That night, except for the helicopter light pouring through our windows, the quietude of death pervaded. We woke to a television screeching horrific noise and a disorientated nation.

Making my way to school I stepped away from the hysterical television and into the aftermath of war. Outside, the normally roaring Hoddle Street was covered in an eerie hush and with debris, dried blood and the drawn faces of police, media and emergency services personnel.

Sobriety fell from the grey sky to permeate everything. There was no running commentary, no flashing images, and no shiny newsreaders barking speculation. At the mourning site anxiety stood still. Nothing felt safe or familiar and I was completely silent inside.

At Clifton Hill Station the commuters were stone. Unlike other mornings where a hum rose from the crowd, everyone was frozen and silently faced the desecrated street before us.

I stood with this spontaneous memorial to strangers who, hours before, had left us. It was as if we stood at a cemetery, at the lip of the abyss, where our trust in others lay obliterated. Made mute, we stood together and met the silence of the dead. This act of solidarity between strangers resisted the blind individualism of Knight, who violently denied humanity to the strangers on the street.

It is powerful to watch the Norwegian people meet the silence of their dead at mass gatherings and marches. They poured from houses to remember together in silence, to reclaim public space and transform the streets into arteries of quiet solidarity. The Norwegian people are teaching us how collectively to mourn and reclaim social trust after it has been decimated.

Hysteria and noise still arise but, mainly, not from the directly affected. Many survivors from the island shooting have made a pact not to speak to the media about what they witnessed, not yet anyway. They don't want to contribute to the clamour that can cloud profound mourning.

Does it add anything to probe the wound while it's fresh? To report, to give an account, risks transforming trauma into spectacle, and disrespects the instinct of the wounded to recoil. There will be a time for public speech.

In the battle to understand what kind of mind perpetuates such evil, mute victims and the truth can get smothered. Australia was unprepared for Hoddle Street. The police, the media, everyone, struggled to comprehend the event. It's tempting and natural to fill incomprehension with blind noise. Collectively and individually the experience of incommensurable loss, the murder of the status quo, can fill us with existential anxiety. Impulsive words rush to fill the void.

In the first hours of the Norway attacks there was screeching about Al Qaeda and radical Islamic clerics. Perhaps in that moment silence was required, for the truth revealed it was someone from within who held the gun to his own people.

The murderer wishes to speak. He wishes to make noise. He wishes to explain himself in court. Like Knight he did not commit suicide and retreat into the final silence he forced upon others. He desires to claim this event for himself and to maintain narrative control.

Criminal law shouldn't exist for this purpose. It shouldn't be a podium for the perpetuation of harm. Once Knight and this man chose to breach our, often silent, ethical pact to respect each other's basic humanity, they lost the moral right to control collective narrative.

This event also belongs to the dead, the survivors and the society that tries to restore the sudden social void. The narrative belongs to the collective and must be wrested away from destructive individualism. Legal processes focus on the individual and shouldn't be hindered, but wisely the Norwegian courts have banned televising court proceedings and thus reduced the potential for the mourning process to be mutilated into a noisy circus. Procedure will be followed but diluting the polemical justifications of the accused respects the victims' humanity.

The scramble to isolate the trigger inside Knight's mind followed us for years. While important, this anxiety dominated at the expense of those affected — the victims. We were so busy being anxious about what kind of society we inherited we inadvertently forgot the fallen.

Watching a few survivors of Norway's massacre speak to the media, it seems boundaries have been lost. Trauma, the extreme slash between the inside and outside and into our bodies, makes speech difficult. Words arrive rushed, stunted, incoherent or slow and cold.

In time they might be able to reclaim their narratives but for now I wish them a deeper kind of silence which, when shared, will ensure they aren't forgotten. 

Bronwyn LayBronwyn Lay is an Australian writer living in France who has a background in law and political theory. 

Topic tags: Bronwyn Lay, Norway, Julian Knight, anders breivik, hoddle street massacre



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Existing comments

So beautifully and emotively written...lest we forget!

Sambista | 14 January 2012  

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