London van incident

The battle within between dispassion and empathy

I had been planning on writing yet another article decrying the afflictive double standard and dog whistle politics of the term “terrorism.” Saturday, thousands of Muslims in Cologne, Germany marched to protest Islamic extremism, and I wanted to express how ineffably tired I am of having to march with a “Love & Unity” sign to prove my humanity/innocence/possession of a heart, but when Muslims are the victims instead of the perpetrators no one has “Love & Unity” with us. But it’s been written again and again and again and again and again.

Then on Sunday, 47 year old Darren Osborne drove a van into a crowd of Muslims leaving Ramadan night prayers at a London mosque, killing at least one person and injuring near a dozen others. Witnesses say Osborne shouted he wanted to “kill all Muslims” and that he did it as retribution “for London Bridge.” The CNN headline read, “London van hits pedestrians in Finsbury Park,” all mentions of the deliberate targeting of Muslims curiously omitted. News outlets lined up pundits to say they “weren’t sure” if it was terrorism or not (no mention of hate crimes either), but they all took a few moments to spout a few glib words on “diversity.” No word yet if Trump will respond by tweeting some blather about his Muslim Ban.

Of the entire incident, what struck me most is that I—  I didn’t react. Other than a frisson of anger at the hypocrisy and a few twangs of grief at lives lost… I feel almost… unperturbed. Logically, I feel where the overwhelming sadness and despondency ought to be— where it has unfailingly been in the past— but none of its symptoms have manifested. Instead, I just feel dispassion. And that worries me. I don’t ever want to be the type of person who shrugs or turns a blind eye to someone’s pain.

But I’m coming to realize this isn’t really the onset of callousness and cold-hearted antipathy. If I feel rather impassive at the moment, it’s not because I’m losing my capacity for empathy, it’s because over the last 6 months or so, I’ve developed a (questionably healthy) defense mechanism to The Era of Trump and realized that sometimes the best thing I can do for my mental health is accept occasional apathy. And I’m also realizing that maybe, just maybe, it’s not peculiar to me— that this defensive quasi-cynicism exists as a sort of distinctive facet of the collective consciousness of people of color (if such a thing exists) post-Trump.

The night of November 8, I remember the insidious feeling of dread creeping over me, slowly giving away to a consumptive panic when I realized it wasn’t just a fluke or a grand karmic joke, it was really happening. The man who began his campaign by saying “Mexicans are rapists,” earned bonus points for calling for the “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” and couldn’t even be stopped by hot mic recordings when he bragged about grabbing women “by the pussy”— that man was going to become the most powerful person in the world. I remember my eyes being glued to the electoral college tallies in the same morbid sort of way you can’t look away from a tragic accident. I remember my brain being a jumble of panic as once-worst-case-scenarios suddenly seemed inevitable, images striking me of my grandparents being unable to return to the country even with Green Cards, of my parents’ citizenship being revoked, of my siblings being rounded up for internment camps. I remember questioning the next morning if I should leave my apartment, afraid what his 60 million voters would now feel emboldened to do. I remember feeling like each and every one of those voters had looked directly at me and told me I didn’t belong in their country, and that knowledge squeezed like rubber bands around my chest so I couldn’t catch a full breath of air or form a coherent sentence. I remember looking at the faces around me that were in various states of terror or denial as each of our private nightmares seemed to come to life, and no amount of hugs stemmed the tears. During lunch I usually worked on law school applications, but I remember that day just staring immobilized at the screen because I couldn’t look that far into the future without drowning in waves of crushing panic again. I remember constantly feeling nauseated and bone weary, unable to eat or sleep for almost a week. I remember waking up every morning in the weeks after, terrified this would be the day a severed pig head, or racist graffiti at the very least, showed up in front of the apartment I shared with another hijabi woman. I remember the only time the panic truly drowned me and I gave into the terror was a little over a week later when there was a suspected hate crime on campus, and the night I found out I remember how I struggled to bring my voice to lower than a shout and how the only words I could formulate were a torrent of curses as I practically yanked my hair out in frustration. I remember vowing never to return to that bone-crushing panic again, and I remember the dispassion taking over ever since.

So if I say that I felt impassive in the face of Sunday’s London attack beyond my angry huffs and frustrated sighs, understand it’s just because at this point I can’t afford to allow something which is, in the grand scheme of things, relatively small to pierce my armor of dispassion. You have to understand that over the last six months I saw hate crimes against Muslims spike after the election to such a level that I was convinced I was next, but I couldn’t summon more than an unaffected shrug at the possibility, adopting an “if it happens, it happens” sort of mentality. I saw a slew of Cabinet positions filled by alt-Right Neo-Nazis, racist conspiracy theorists, and Islamophobes, including one who said Islam is a “vicious cancer inside the body of 1.7 billion people” that had to be “excised,” and all I felt was mild relief the man who called to “exterminate” Muslims wasn’t chosen. I saw a man motivated by extremist far-right views kill 6 people in a Quebec mosque in a shooting rampage, but I couldn’t summon an ounce of surprise it had happened, only that Trudeau condemned it so roundly. I saw a British politician, after the London Bridge Terror Attacks, suggest the internment of Muslims as a solution to extremism, and I couldn’t summon more than a bitter, humorless laugh that that was really the solution he was proposing. For goodness sake, last month a man tried to harass me on the street and yell racial slurs at me as he drove by and, I swear to you— rather than sink into despair as I did a year ago— I just cackled at him, wanting to tell him he’d have to do better than that if he wanted to scare me.

After the grand upset that was Trump’s election, nothing seems to faze me. Since then, I’ve been able to summon copious amounts of anger and disgust— and grief in small doses— at the state of politics, but everything else has succumbed to a void of apathy. Each terrible piece of news has been met with a derisive woosh of air in an indignant exhale, but it all just felt inevitable. It’s the same frustrated, resigned air with which BlackLivesMatter activists greet every failure to indict police officers who shoot unarmed Black men unprovoked. We all expected it. It’s the same fatalistic way Muslims square their shoulders when, despite all their prayers, the gunman turned out to be ISIS-affiliated after all. We all expected it. It’s the same repulsed tone in which anti-deportation attorneys snarl “of course, they did” after they learn ICE tore up yet another family with their raids and forced deportations. We all expected it. It’s not that we don’t care, it’s that if we broke apart after each time the world showed its hostility, there’d be nothing left in us but desolate despair, abject terror, and bottomless grief. And then we wouldn’t be able to make it through the day, let alone work to make anything better.

And I’m not sure how I feel about my realizations about my own dispassion, even if I’m not the only one to retreat behind defensive cynicism lest we bow to panicked despair again. Because at at some level, that despair we’re avoiding is a sign we’re still human, and embracing that grief is a reminder to never turn away from someone’s plight in disconcern. I worry that this dispassion will stunt my capacity for empathy because that’s one thing I never want to lose. But if the dispassion is the only thing keeping depression from crushing shoulders that cannot bear the horrors of the world, I’m loathe to disavow its protection. How else are we to survive the unholy mess that is The Era of Trump?