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On Jeremy Corbyn and tragedy

To classify events as "tragic" is to absolve ourselves and everyone else of responsibility

“Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”

                                                                                                             Mel Brooks

Much has been made in the past couple of days of Labour leadership contender Jeremy Corbyn’s assertion that the killing of Osama bin Laden was a “tragedy”. Mr Corbyn made his comments on Iran’s Press TV in 2011. It is worth reprinting the “tragedy” section of the interview in full (via the Daily Mirror):

"On this there was no attempt whatsoever that I can see to arrest him, to put him on trial, to go through that process.

"This was an assassination attempt and is yet another tragedy upon a tragedy upon a tragedy.

"The World Trade Centre was a tragedy, the attack on Afghanistan was a tragedy, the war in Iraq was a tragedy.”

The criticism of Corbyn is mostly based on the idea that by asserting that the death of bin Laden and the attack on New York were both “tragedies”, he is suggesting they are equivalent.

But this doesn’t follow: two events can be tragic, while being nowhere near equivalent in scale or horror. The death of a much-loved family pet could be viewed as tragic, as could the death of a child: but that is not to suggest they are equivalent.

The problem with Corbyn’s description of the various events listed above as tragedies is that it rips away the agency from all those involved. The World Trade Center attack was not a tragedy: it was a crime. Corbyn himself has stated that he believes the war in Iraq was illegal, and that there is a case to be made for a trial against its instigators, including Tony Blair. But that does not square with any notion of tragedy - which suggests an unavoidable, disastrous, conclusion, in which agency matters little.

Teenage Benedict Cumberbatch fans have been queueing up to see their hero perform Hamlet, one of the great tragic roles. The prince of Denmark wreaks havoc where ever he goes, but he is essentially not the agent or protagonist: he is compelled by forces greater than him - by the ghost’s demand for revenge, by the pervading injustice of the court at Elsinore. Hamlet, haunted, cannot be held responsible for the carnage around him. Similarly, in the classical tragedy Medea, the title character’s brutality is not entirely hers to own: she is compelled by her nature, as a barbarian, and as a woman to take revenge on her lover by killing their children and his new bride. She is rescued from vengeance against herself by Deus Ex Machina, suggesting the gods are on her side.

Ascribing the classification of “tragedy” to events is tempting: much as it denies the immediate protagonists agency, it also absolves observers of any duty to intervene: matters are now inevitably this way: nothing can be done.

The civil war in Syria has now passed into the realm of the tragic, much as the war in Congo did before it. We can now despair of the deaths, and feel sad, but we can safely do so as observers, as at the theatre, with the understanding that these things will inevitably play out, no matter what we do or don’t do.

In a perverse way, their proximity to the European Union is fortunate for those attempting to flee the Syrian bloodbath. While it is true that the vast majority of refugees end up in neighbouring Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, the fact that many are knocking at the door of Europe means that while we cannot retreat entirely into hand-wringing and sadness about the “tragedy” on Syria. We are forcefully reminded that this is not a mere “tragedy” at all: this is a horror show, and we have our part to play.

Padraig Reidy is the editor of Little Atoms. He is Director of Editorial at 89up and has written and ghostwritten for The Evening Standard, The Guardian, The Observer, The Irish Times, The Daily Telegraph, The New Statesman, The Sun, and The Irish Post.

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