ELHAM NUMAN AND VANESSA WANG/THE VARSITY

In the wake of the anniversary of the September 11 attacks, an aura of sorrow immediately permeated the city of Toronto. Though the terrorist attacks orchestrated by al-Qaeda took place in New York and Washington, the scope of the grief 9/11 incited spanned the entire world. The emotional response to the tragedy remains strong 15 years later.

Directors continue to make films and documentaries about September 11, 2001. Conspiracy theorists continue to piece together various retellings of the events and perpetrators. And of course, the world continues to mourn the almost 3,000 lives lost on that horrific day. The only tragedies more talked-about or more widely-recognized are perhaps the World Wars of the twentieth century.

Despite the extensive number of newsworthy calamities the world has come to know over the years, recent acts of mass violence never seem to hit quite as hard as 9/11. No matter how publicly a tragedy is broadcasted or how many people are injured or killed, there has not yet been another event as unforgettably appalling to the general public as the September 11 attacks.

People do not simply become less empathetic because they can be — they do it because they have no choice.

In light of this, some will claim that society has become desensitized to mass violence. In many ways, this is true. Many people still register the significance of the Columbine shooting of 1999 and yet can barely recall the particulars of the Sandy Hook shooting of 2012. The San Bernardino shooting that took the lives of 14 in 2015 was yet another event that was spoken of only for a few short days, before it was swallowed up entirely by a different wave of journalism.

What makes the world today so much less impacted by the human evils we hear about on television or read about in the news than when Columbine or 9/11 occurred? Some may attribute it to ‘millennial selfishness,’ technological expansion, or perhaps the increasing pervasiveness of violence in video games and media.

These responses, however, are as trite as they are trivial. People do not simply become less empathetic because they can be — they do it because they have no choice.

Perhaps the Columbine shooting is perceived to be historically significant because it was the first of its kind. When Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold turned their guns on classmates and teachers alike, they tainted the entire nature of high school. From 1999 onwards, schools lost the imagined force field society had previously designated for them, which deemed them safe civilian zones with precious lives not to be harmed or perverted. This massacre, which left 12 students, one teacher, and both killers dead, proved that absolutely nowhere is perfectly safe.

By the time the Sandy Hook shooting occurred 13 years later, the public had been primed for such tragedies. Despite the fact that the Sandy Hook shooting resulted in the deaths of 20 children and six adults and also took place in a school, the world could ‘handle’ the tragedy, so to speak — Columbine had already prepared us for the fact that not everything could be protected, nor can everyone be saved.

The ability to share condolences through different media has also made it more difficult to grieve for longer stretches of time. Being able to share posts of sorrow, retweet supportive hashtags, or change your Facebook profile picture to reflect recent heartbreak is proving to be an effective catharsis. The immediacy of dealing with the discomfort of grief and anxiety through online forums allows people to return smoothly to their normal lives. This makes the lifespan of the average mass violence news coverage much shorter than it may otherwise be.

Nevertheless, grief is perhaps the only response a member of the public can offer when tragedies occur. Consider the sheer magnitude and complexity of the social change that must occur in order to stop these disasters from happening and the lack of control we can exercise over this process.

Though these events have irrevocably shaped the world, reform in response to tragedy has not been enacted diligently enough to make human fear or sorrow productive. Criminals go by undetected and turn guns on unsuspecting victims, with no rhyme or reason, no explanation that can prevent future tragedies, and no resources to ensure that those at risk of committing such offences receive adequate psychological assistance before it is too late.

People can handle a lot more trauma in a lot less time, and that in itself is a tragedy of great significance.

After 9/11, wars on terrorism spread quickly around the world, and North Atlantic Treaty Organization alliances were enacted, but little could ease the fear that something catastrophic could happen again at any time. Even heightened security regimes enacted in response to 9/11, and now considered commonplace procedures only add to the anxiety. All this does is create a perception that violence is the norm, which significantly diminishes the extent to which tragedies are mourned.

The hijacked planes destroyed more than the Twin Towers that day, and the Columbine shooting killed more than its innocent victims. These events set the tone for the way the world would understand and articulate mass violence, and the often expedient way in which the public now recovers from subsequent crimes.

The human psyche can only take so much grief, and so everyone lets go of theirs as soon as they can. Now, people can handle a lot more trauma in a lot less time, and that in itself is a tragedy of great significance.

Jenisse Minott is a second-year student at UTM studying Communications, Culture, Information, and Technology.

Like our content? Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

* indicates required