The Toronto Star by Jill Scott 5 September 2011
The untimely death of a celebrated Canadian political icon and the upcoming 10th anniversary of a terrorist-driven tragedy don’t, on the face of it, have much in common.
Jack Layton’s death spawned an extraordinary outpouring of love and affection. 9/11 was a tragic event that shattered the lives of thousands of Americans and prompted a decade-long military conflict.
However, dig a bit deeper and we find these two seemingly unrelated events are connected by surprisingly similar public reactions of mourning, patriotism, division and hostility.
After the announcement of the NDP leader’s death two weeks ago, the airwaves were abuzz with astounded sentiments of grief. One couple wept openly in a café, while Facebook and Twitter were flooded with messages of sadness.
While it may have seemed overwhelming to some, we shouldn’t be completely surprised at this public outpouring of emotion. Starting with the explosion of “global grief” in the wake of Princess Diana’s death, public mourning has been on the rise.
Media images reflect emotions back to us, intensifying and proliferating public grieving and this phenomenon is accelerated further by social media. When we hear about the death of a public figure — like Jack Layton — or identify with innocent victims — as happened after 9/11 — we associate their passing with other losses we have endured, and we relive those powerful emotions.
These shared feelings of sadness and loss can act as a potent form of glue. Mourning brings people together, and even Stephen Harper had kind words for his political adversary.
As we celebrate the meaning and value we find in a person’s life, we participate in a form of community building, whether in public spaces or in cyberspace. Jack Layton’s death has cemented hope and optimism for a better country as core values in the national imagination. Similarly, after 9/11 Americans rallied together to support each other in moving ways.
But emotions are fickle. If grief builds bridges, it can also burn them. Less than 24 hours after the news of Layton’s death, Christie Blatchford of the National Postlabelled the torrent of emotion over Jack Layton’s death a “mawkish” public spectacle. When Blatchford wondered whether the NDP leader’s parting letter was political opportunism, she found a ready audience. Instead of the left against the right, it was those for passionate displays of emotion and those against.
Either way, it was fiercely adversarial. As the week wore on, the pages of Canada’s newspapers became the site of a bitter dispute over appropriate forms of mourning. Some people even wagged a finger at his doctors for not treating his prostate cancer more aggressively.
The hiatus in partisanship was brief.
We saw this same kind of grief-hatred flip-flop after 9/11. At first, Americans were consumed with empathy and sorrow for those who had lost loved ones. But the sadness soon turned to rage. The public looked for someone to blame, and the U.S. administration capitalized on the vulnerability of a shocked nation. A mere 10 days after 9/11, George W. Bush declared that the time for grieving was over, and that it was time to wage “war on terror.” Sorrow turned to anger and anger fuelled the country’s desire for revenge.
If there is a lesson in all of this, it is that the intense emotions of grief are volatile, and can easily be co-opted.
As the tenth anniversary of 9/11 approaches, critics will watch with interest to see whether the grief that turned to rage might shift again. Some families of victims have spoken out in favour of forgiveness. Many Americans vehemently oppose such mercy. Either way, there is likely to be a fierce debate.
As for Jack Layton’s legacy, you can bet that when election time rolls around, there will be no love lost. It will be business as usual.
Jill Scott is a professor in the Queen’s University Department of Languages, Literature and Culture, and the author of A Poetics of Forgiveness: Creative Responses to Loss and Wrongdoing.