Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Thoughts on a Violent Death

     Today my city, Edmonton, buries Corporal Daniel Woodall, its first police officer killed in the line of duty in 25 years. There has been an enormous outpouring of support for EPS, and there are blue ribbons tied to every tree and lamppost on many streets. By all accounts (including that of my own son, who knew him from training in the same martial arts school), Corporal Woodall was a kind and gentle person, respectful and respected, and his death can only be seen as an untimely tragedy.
     Yet while I do not in any way wish to diminish the honours paid to the fallen today, I have a question: why does violence occupy so disproportionately large a space in our emotions? Why is it that we attach such significance to a violent death, compared to a death that results from accident or disease?
     Is it because he took a bullet so we don't have to? That's a compelling and poetic way to put it, but probably not completely true; it's not at all clear that the man who shot him would have gone on to shoot civilians if he hadn't been arrested. But perhaps he might have, as he was being arrested on charges relating to extreme stalking and threatening behaviour. In any event, the precise details of the incident aren't really helpful here: the principal claim is that officers put themselves at risk to make us safer, and in principle that I can accept. It is indeed a noble thing to put oneself at risk for the benefit of others.
     But consider this: On April 22, a truck accidentally dumped a load of sand and gravel on a worker at an industrial park, and six days later he died of his injuries, on the very same day another worker was killed when the sewer trench he was excavating collapsed on top of him. They died to keep our highways safe, and for modern sanitation, which has saved countless millions of lives.
     In 2014, there were 25 fatalities in farming accidents in Alberta.  These people died to keep us well-fed.
     In 2013, 1129 people died in the collapse of a Bangladesh garment factory. These people died to keep us inexpensively clothed.
     Again, I really do not mean to diminish Corporal Woodall's sacrifice. What I am trying to make sense of here is why we fail to recognize the sacrifices of these other workers as heroic as well. Their deaths were no less tragic, and for purposes no less noble.

     I think it comes down to violence. We seem to fear violence much more than we fear other more serious threats.  People buy guns to protect themselves from crime, yet the risk of a home invasion or mugging is considerably less than the risk of accidentally (or intentionally) shooting yourself or a loved one. People choose to drive (and bear the substantially higher risk of a traffic accident) to avoid the perceived danger of terrorist hijackers on commercial airlines.
     Why is this? Why do we see violence as so much more frightening than other dangers? Maybe it's because of the malice involved, that it's someone's deliberate choice to do harm. It's hard not to take that personally, to be offended that the aggressor valued his or her personal interest higher than another human being's life. And when something is purposeful, it feels harder to escape it, somehow; an accident doesn't care if it misses you, and won't keep trying.
     Whatever the reason, our fear gives violence huge and unwarranted power over us. I've written about this before, and don't really want to go over it at great length again here. What I want to do in this post is to encourage some reflection on our emotional response to violence. I am not suggesting that we shouldn't be expressing sympathy and support for EPS -- of course we should! -- but rather that in doing so we should be careful to avoid inadvertently reinforcing the fearful mystique of violence.


  1. The ribbons and parades are a public statement. The message seems to be, "We are strong. We are united. Our social order is built on the power of the majority."

    It might be productive to ask whom the audience for that message is. Is all of this city-wide show of mourning an attempt to comfort the bereaved family? Or are we also sending a message to each other? If we are, why do we feel the need to do that?

    Police are charged with upholding the rules of our social order. Perhaps our belief in the indomitable power of that social order has been damaged by this death. Shared rituals and public displays are the way humans reinforce communal ties.

    There might also be more to unpack in your statement that, “an accident doesn't care if it misses you, and won't keep trying.” Rituals send a message to outsiders as well as insiders. The message to other violent criminals is “Do not interpret this death as a crack in our defenses. We are strong. We are united. We still outnumber you.”

    1. That's a very good point, Nikolai. I had not considered the significance of these displays from a tribal perspective, and of course they do perform that function.

      What troubles me about that, though, is that when we pretend this is about bereavement, we inadvertently are saying that we DON'T care about a worker killed in a trench collapse. (Incidentally, I STILL cannot find that guy's name in any news reports.)

      Again, I don't want to say we shouldn't be sad about the loss of Corporal Woodall. We SHOULD be. Maybe I'm concerned that we're really not, and are just pretending to be for completely unrelated reasons.

  2. We can have a conversation ABOUT accidental death. But violence is the only form of death we can have a conversation WITH.

  3. You both have interesting points. How different the conversation would be if you recognized a Sovereign God who directs the disaster as well as the bullet, stray or purpousful, to the end that men and women should come to salvation in His Son, Jesus Christ! You would have the same points to ponder, but you would be on the road to intellectual satisfaction and personal reassurance. You would open the door to comfort and help. You would end up praying for the masses in Bangladesh, that they might hear the Gospel, and praying for the bereaved that might seek the God of All comfort. Your speculations are pointless without Him. But keep thinking and sharing. Thank you.

    1. That you do not see the point to any speculations that do not explicitly return to your notion of God does not mean there is no point. Similarly, the fact that I cannot, for all my trying, see the point to your preaching doesn't mean you don't have one. I remain open to seeing it, if you would but make the effort to explain instead of just continuing to assert.

      However, I would prefer not to hijack this thread away from discussion of our attitudes about violence, as so many other comment threads have been hijacked in the past. In the next few days I intend to write a new blog post about this question specifically, so please save your response for that.

    2. Bravo, Tom. You have been feeding this troll far too long.

  4. There is a troll under every bridge you build.