Thursday, October 21, 2010

Mandatory comments on Col. Williams

It appears, from the pages and pages of media coverage of the trial of Col.* Russell Williams, that everyone feels the need to talk. So do I, but not for long.

1. No one knows or is likely to know why Williams did what he did. Not even Williams. That is fundamentally horrifying and destabilizing in itself. Hence the frantic search for explanations, to shore up our belief--a necessary one, perhaps--in an orderly universe, a world of logic, of cause-and-effect.

2. When reading the endless media reports and commentary, I have been struck by the utter failure of language to meet the circumstances. The words used by the families involved to describe the impact of his deeds, as reported in today's Ottawa Citizen, leave me deeply unsatisfied:

Evil hate cowardly grief

Betrayal cruelty violation

Sheer agony shattered fear

Depression traumatized

And here is Williams, in his own words:

indescribably ashamed

I am sorry

despicable crimes

Has language ever been so inadequate? The two sides, if I can put it that way, were enacting a kind of public ritual, but in this instance it has been a fundamentally empty one.

The French philosopher George Steiner, in Language and Silence, wrote of the Holocaust:

The world of Auschwitz lies outside speech as it lies outside reason. To speak of the unspeakable is to risk the survivance of language as creator and bearer of humane, rational truth. Words that are saturated with lies or atrocity do not easily resume life.

To speak of the horror that we have glimpsed through the media over the past few days, then, is to minimize that horror, and to further weaken language itself.

3. There is nothing to be done but to let the rituals play out.
But a meaningful silence is our deepest and most authentic response.

*Rank stripped on October 22.

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