Making sense of tragedy: Thoughts, prayers and mourning for Las Vegas
I worked in the TODAY newsroom for almost a decade. It’s where I learnt about life and love, and along the way, about journalism too.
The past week, my newsfeed has been filled with people eulogising the death of the print edition, offstone now replaced with a digital headstone. Their happiest memories, their proudest scoop, the view of fireworks from the old Clifford Centre office.
My turn: My single starkest memory from my decade there was on December 26, 2004. I was 20 days into the job, a sub-editor doing the sub-editor thing of waiting for pages to come in (late), when the whole newsroom fell silent, rose to a man, and crowded around the TV.
That day, as we watched hundreds of thousands in the region killed in the Boxing Day earthquake and tsunami, I learnt about death.
That was the repeated theme of my years in the newsroom. Death by disaster. Death by explosion. Death by hanging. Death by vehicular impact. Death by gunfire. Some court trials and elections (or not) to break the rhythm, but the cadence was always measured in body counts. Seven that I remember happening on my beat, off the top of my head:
Cyclone Nargis hits Myanmar, May 2008. At least 100,000 dead.
Mumbai attacks, November 2008. 172 dead.
Haiti earthquake, January 2010. At least 220,000 dead.
Fukushima earthquake and tsunami, November 2011. 20,000 dead, not accounting for long-term effects of radiation.
AirAsia QZ8501 goes missing, December 2014. 162 dead.
Nepal earthquakes, April 2015. 9,000 dead.
Paris attacks, November 2015. 130 dead.
You cover disaster after disaster, attack after attack, and you get numb to the tragedy. You stop crowding around the TV because you’ve seen it before, and you’ve seen worse.
You start to see people as statistics, not souls. You get irritated when the death count rises overnight, not because of the lives that have been lost, but because your figures in print are now outdated.
Headlines over humanity: The cursed perspective of the jaded journalist.
Now I’m out of the newsroom I still have to fight the instinct to look for a news point, rather than absorb the scale of the tragedy. I automatically lapse into news editor mode, looking for authority figures to blame, heads of state putting their foot in their mouth, disaster response teams performing inadequately, causative systemic flaws.
In the wake of distant tragedy, we experience some degree of vicarious outrage, amplified by our helplessness. That’s what the headlines do: They feed off this hunger for an outlet to vent, a scapegoat to rail against. Every click is kindling to the fire.
I caught myself when I started coming back to Church a few years back. This numbness to distant death, I was convicted, is the exact opposite of how God would want us to react.
And so for years my most persistent prayer has been that He would teach me compassion.
The compassion the Father had when I gave up His Son to die so that those of us who were wandering towards eternal death might instead have eternal life.
Through the lens of compassion, I now see the true tragedy in tragedy: That a life cut short is eternal hope lost. Death forever slams shuts the window of grace.
The compassion Jesus showed when, even on the Cross, He forgave His ignorant persecutors.
The compassion that is the basis of the mercy I have been extended, in spite of this life so poorly lived, and the grace that I build my life upon, in place of my flawed flesh.
Through the lens of compassion, I now see the true tragedy in tragedy: That a life cut short is eternal hope lost. For every other misstep and miscalculation, there is always hope of redemption, reparation or restoration. But death forever slams shuts the window of grace.
There is death in the body, and a death that could follow. The latter, we are taught, is by far the more fearsome thing.
“I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.” (Luke 12:4)
“Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” (James 4:14)
Today’s headlines are all about the dozens shot dead at a concert along Las Vegas’ Strip, with a single attacker mowing them down using an arsenal of weapons from the window of the nearby Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino.
I wrote earlier about the cadence of death: I’ve been watching eyewitness videos, and I now imagine that cadence sounds like the relentless beat of a fully-automatic weapon.
I have read horrible chatter online, about how Sin City is reaping its due consequences, about how America had this coming. Now is not the time for pious religiosity and petty politics – now is the time for mourning. Now is not the time for fear of man, responding to terror with terror; now is the time for compassion, self-examination and prayer.
Mourning, because dozens lie dead. Jesus wept in the face of the death of a brother, and we should too. If incidents like these don’t bother you, know that they should. Eternal life or eternal death should never be somebody else’s concern.
Compassion, because dozens lie dead. If that is still a meaningless headline figure to you, consider that somewhere, there is a grieving widow, a helpless orphan borne of the tragedy. As we are reminded in James 1:27, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress.”
Self-examination, because dozens lie dead. What is it about society breeds such violent, channelled anger in a lone-wolf attack? What is it about community that could mitigate against any future similar individuals doing the same? What is it about a country’s regulations – gun laws, for example – that might breed or block such incidents? Is there a lesson in this for Singapore?
And prayer, because dozens lie dead. Everything seems helpless in the face of terror. How do you take every weapon out of a terrorist’s hands, when that could include everyday items like vehicles and fertiliser? You can’t. But we know that the powerlessness of man is a call to prayer; there we acknowledge our absolute need for Him, appeal to His mercy, and ask for a miracle.
“He will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces.” (Isaiah 25:8)