Berkeley: A Cosmic Injustice

The response to the tragedy in Berkeley was powerful and moving. But it is hard to listen to celebrities claiming a special relationship with God, when there are so many victims of tragedy – and of oppression– to think about...

Now that the dust has settled. It is one of those hoary old cliches that we too readily lapse into after something seismic happens. It fits an earthquake.

A bombing raid. Or the days after a military bombardment.

Now that the dust has settled. The immediate suggestion is that we should be able to see things more clearly. It isn’t just that time has passed, it is that we can begin to breathe clear air once again. And we can also aspire to looking beyond the scenes of carnage that cloud both our vision and our emotions. There is the explosion. People run for cover. Others scan the horizon desperately to see what’s next. The debris is everywhere. No one knows the full human cost yet. Or the cause. The air is filled with grit and grime. Falling slowly. And apprehension too. What does the future hold for the love that we knew? I try to imagine what it must have been like for the six victims of the Berkeley tragedy in that moment when the balcony on which they had been standing gave way. And for the seven friends who survived. The horrible, inescapable truth is that the dust never really settles, after something like this. Those who died leave behind families who have been plunged into depths of grief that no one should ever have to endure. And those who survived will find themselves reliving those terrible few seconds again and again, for so many years to come that it will feel like forever.

We remember the names of those who died: Ashley Donohoe (22), from Rohnert Park, California; her cousin and close friend Olivia Burke (21) from Foxrock; Eimear Walsh (21), also from Foxrock; Eoghan Culligan (21) from Rathfarnham; Niccolai Schuster (21) from Terenure and Lorcán Miller (21) from Shankill. Our hearts are broken for you and for the families from whom you have been stolen. That it was the result of such a shockingly banal twist of fate, arising from a series of low level human failures, only adds to the sense of cosmic injustice.

Nothing can ever fix this.


In so many ways, the picture that has emerged of these young men and women since the accident occurred on June 16, 2015 confirms that this emerging generation has a thing or two to teach the rest of us. They were impressive students. Trusted colleagues. Sports mad. Singers and musicians. Party people. Future professionals. But most of all they were deeply loved by their friends because of the innate decency that seemed to come naturally to them.

In moments of tragedy, we are offered harrowing insights that we might never otherwise be privy to. But in tragedy too, the uplifting fact of the depth of people’s goodness sometimes comes shining through. In this case it has. Hearing the families talk, it has been impossible to avoid tears along the way. On occasion, it has been devastating.

Speaking at Lorcán Miller’s funeral, his father, Ken, remembered the final postcard sent by his son before he died. It was addressed to Lorcán’s younger brother Jamie and his sisters, Lucy and Poppy – and arrived two days after the tragic events in Berkeley had occurred.

“Hi guys,” Lorcán wrote, “I just want to send you a postcard to show you where I am working this summer. Bubba Gumps is a restaurant based on the film Forrest Gump: you should watch it with mum and dad.

“As part of my job I have to talk to customers, and I always tell them about my amazing brother and sisters and how much I miss them. I hope you are having lots of fun like me and being good. I’ll see you soon, lots and lots and lots of love as always, Lorcán.”

The postcard, with its wonderfully thoughtful, kind and loving message was signed off with twelve kisses.

Among those injured was Aoife Beary, whose 21st birthday was being celebrated at the apartment in Library Gardens, when the tragedy occurred. Two weeks later, Aoife remains in critical condition. “A serious head injury remains her major concern,” her family revealed in a statement, released on Monday. “This will be a long and slow road to recovery over many months to come.” Their lives torn asunder, Aoife’s parents, Mike and Angela Beary will remain with her in hospital for the foreseeable future. Her sister Anna and brother Tim plan to travel to Stanford, where Aoife is undergoing treatment. It is in moments like this that people’s extraordinary capacity to love is revealed.

There have been no detailed updates on the condition of Hannah Waters, who is also in a critical condition. Looking through pictures of this brilliantly attractive young woman, you see both her ineluctable individuality, and how representative she is of her generation: the thought that life could have had this appalling moment in store for her is too tragic to contemplate, but for Hannah and her family there is no choice.

Amid the carnage that also left Clodagh Cogley, Niall Murray, Sean Fahey, Jack Halpin and Conor Flynn among the injured, there were examples of heroism that also reveal the very best in ordinary people. Clodagh Cogley, who is very seriously injured, has publicly thanked Jack Halpin for grabbing her and breaking her fall. It is such a powerful image: the first instinct of a kind and decent young man was to reach out to the woman closest to him and see what he could do to help, even as they plunged down towards a fate that no one could know or predict...

Clodagh posted a comment on her Facebook page, in which she revealed that her chances of walking again are “pretty bleak.” But the remarkable strength of the human spirit was also evident in what she said. “The thing I am taking from this tragedy,” she wrote, very movingly, “is that life is short and I intend to honour those who died by living the happiest and most fulfilling life possible. Enjoy a good dance and the feeling of the grass beneath your feet like it’s the last time because in this crazy world you never know when it might be.”


It is hard to believe, reading words of such grace and dignity, that the New York Times could have published such a disgracefully stupid and insensitive article about Irish J-1 students, the morning after the tragedy occurred. It was a slovenly piece which depicted our J-1 students as an embarrassment to the country and implied that the students were somehow at fault for the collapse of the balcony. It was an example of victim blaming at its worst: you didn’t need to know that it was a very bad case of dry rot that caused the collapse to see that, or to predict the grotesquely unnecessary hurt that it would cause to the victims and their families. The article was widely and rightly condemned, notably and powerfully by the former President Mary McAleese, as well as by our own Roe McDermott, and the New York Times offered a grudging apology. But the piece was left to fester on the newspaper’s website. Presumably someone got paid for writing it.

Over the days that followed, it was difficult at times to process everything. The gatherings and the funerals. The tributes and the homilies. Raw emotion alongside messages that were intended to offer comfort where comfort is impossible, or next to impossible, to find. The solidarity that was shown, both in California and in Ireland, and the support from communities and extended families of friends, neighbours and colleagues was inspiring. The priests and others officiating did their best in an atmosphere of shock and hurt, with so many feeling bereft, and you had to respect them for it. I know that in times of grief, people often turn to religion and I have no intention of intruding on what the bereaved felt or are feeling in that regard. People find comfort in whatever way works for them.

But at the funeral of Eimear Walsh, in Bayside, Father Paul Ward, said something that resonated.

“The experience of death is always disturbing,” he said, “but the death of a young person is very difficult. It raises questions we can’t answer. It challenges the very meaning and purpose of life. It faces us with our own mortality and it challenges our faith.”

He went on, in the best way he could, to try to get people thinking beyond the tragedy and the grief. It is what a priest must do. But as an atheist, I couldn’t help thinking of another hoary old cliche. God is good. It stuck in my craw.

And I thought: I don’t ever want to see Katie Taylor thanking God if she wins another gold medal. I don’t want to see Neymar de Silvos Santos Junior blessing himself and looking to the skies after he scores a goal. I don’t want to see a gushing thanks to the Almighty on the sleeve of an album by any artist, black or white. Because, far from being a statement of humility, the exceptionalism which is implied – that any God would single you out above everyone else for attention and support – is the worst form of arrogance and conceit.

Whether you believe in God or otherwise, the idea that there is a benign Deity out there taking an interest in your life, or mine, or Neymar’s, or Katie Taylor’s, or Beyoncé’s is an insult to the victims of the Berkeley tragedy. It is an insult to the migrants who have drowned off the coast of Europe trying to make their way from Africa. It is an insult to the people brutally murdered by the gunman, Seifeddine Rezgui, in Tunisia. It is an insult to the victims of the Gaza war and of the ongoing wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan and to those suffering through civil wars in so many parts of Africa. It is an insult to the victims of drone attacks in Yemen and Pakistan.

If God can take an interest in your life, I want to ask The Game, then why did he, she or it not take an interest in the lives of every woman who has had her hands chopped off for ‘adultery’ or in the lives of the African Americans gunned down by Dylan Roof?

So let’s have an end to this self-centred exceptionalism. And think of what really matters: the people trying to piece their lives together after the explosion. Because it is hard to imagine that this dust will ever really settle...

 

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Ours is an increasingly multi-cultural society. However, our vast State bureaucracy has refused to move with the times. Fundamental changes are needed if asylum seekers coming to Ireland are to receive justice.

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