Luke Melia


April 29, 2002

4/28/02, 11:18 pm

Depressing NY Times magazine this weekend. The chronology of an MIT suicide. A profile of a child assassin in Columbia. A first-person description of fear in the Muslim-Hindu issues of India.

It’s nearly surreal to try to reconcile these horrors with my own comparatively idyllic life. What did I do this weekend? Volleyball in the sunshine. Beer and celebration at Mary’s party. Eating my way through Little Italy and the Village with my family. Putting off doing laundry in favor of a nap…

I read the suicide article last. Reading it started to tie the stories together for me somehow. Elizabeth Shin, the student, isn’t so far removed from my existence that I can leave the story with a label of “surreal” in my head. She was an over-achieving raised-in-suburbia college student. I’ve been there. (Alright, so I wasn’t exactly over-achieving in college… But I was in high school.)

Could I then, leave the story of “Tiny,” the teenaged hitman, in the surreal bucket? I certainly couldn’t not try to understand Meera Nair’s story of living as a Hindu in a majority-Muslim neighborhood in Hyderabad.

I guess the way to combat the dismissed-as-horrible-and-surreal tendency, is to accept that these people are simply human beings who made their conclusions, created their beliefs and ultimately acted. The people in these articles (as well as the Palestinian suicide bombers, the Israeli residents of the Gaza settlements, the neighborhood drunk, the list goes on and on) are basically like me.

It’s scary to think about suicide as something that could naturally occur. But it clearly can. Despite the labels we put on “abnormal” mental issues “disorders,” these “abnormalities” are “normal” enough that they are a constant part of our world, year in and year out.

The article about Elizabeth makes the point that the young woman’s death has created a blame game between her folks and MIT. This is sad in a way, but when you start to think about her suicide as the result of a natural sequence of events and interpretations, that’s exactly what you want to know. How do you get to that condition?

How does a child decide that being a murderer is an OK existence? How does the watchman in Meera Nair’s story justify his inaction in the face of a hate-fueled murder?

The younger the person, the easier it should be to figure out the path.

Tiny, in Columbia, effectively has no father. His male role models are gang leaders and he discovered that he could gain approval from those role models and from his peers by killing people. His mother effectively encourages those relationships. Kids everywhere do a lot to secure the approval of their parental figures. How else do you know as a child if you’re heading in even remotely the right direction without some nods and assurances from people who have been around the block?

Elizabeth’s achievements are as superlatively impressive as Tiny’s are horrible. Nineteen years of experiences are too many for me to unravel, if I even knew all of them. I can’t say that I understand how she moved from those achievements to the thoughts of death and self-mutilation. It was under pressure, mostly self-applied. I wonder about the influence of being raised in a Korean family — which seems like it can be somehow impersonal and discouraging of emotional expression.

I guess Elizabeth sometimes felt like a failure despite her successes. My mom lessened some of the pressures I put on myself as a teen by telling me that “life isn’t fair.” She told me it frequently in response to my lamentations “it’s not fair!” I hated that fact at the time. But I think it’s helped me to see the world as shades of gray, and not as black and white. If the world’s not fair, not only do I not have a shot to be perfect, but it doesn’t matter anyway, because people wouldn’t treat me as perfect anyway.

Meera’s story makes me recall my time living in Bangalore. Along with my girlfriend at the time, Meeta, I sublet an apartment in an upscale commercial and entertainment district of the South Indian city. We were an unmarried interracial couple living easily on the strength of the dollar. Tensions with Pakistan were growing again. Their were some nationalistic marches and demonstrations in the intersection our balcony overlooked.

I thankfully had no firsthand experience with issues and fear described by Meera. If I had been an American of Middle Eastern heritage rather than European, I wonder how it might have been different.

In the circle of friends we developed there, I’m sure we wouldn’t have had any problems. It was a multi-ethnic, gay-friendly group of relatively privileged people, mostly college students. In our building, though, I don’t know. Would the overly curious and presumably gossipy electrician would have had the same perspective?

Trying to understand the issues of race relations from a personal psychological perspective seems far more challenging than trying to understand Tiny as murderer or Elizabeth as suicide. It’s much easier to decipher the historical, political and socioeconomic factors that create tension between Hindus and Muslims (yet more fallout from Britain’s colonialism — amazing how racism manifests itself in the those discriminated against…) than the mind of one person who thinks a Muslim life is worthless, or vice versa.

It’s important to try to understand the personal, because that’s the way out. Problems of hate aren’t going to be successfully addressed by arms or money, but by love, fostered and facilitated at the right points of individuals’ lives.

I guess that’s all I have to write tonight. I’m grateful for my nearly-idyllic weekend. I’m sorry about Elizabeth, about Tiny, and about those less lucky than Meera.

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