They kill with the ease that others breathe. You could sense it, almost smell it, off the television coverage.
Nobody watching TV last Friday evening came away with any sense of comfort, of there being anything good or benign to take away from the coverage. The search for some good news, which TV news does instinctively, was useless. No tale of a lucky escape, no news of an attacker foiled, was going to diminish the impact of the overwhelming sense of despair. They kill with the ease that others breathe.
Always on such horrific occasions, there is widespread frustration with TV coverage. We are drawn to it, always, and always, viewers complain. CNN was full of itself and floundering, some said. The BBC coverage was better, more balanced and less hysterical. CBC News Network wasn't up to it. Some people searched and found France 24, the English-language French public broadcaster, on cable services or online. They recommended it online.
Such frustrations and criticisms of TV news are understandable. No broadcaster can prepare for an outbreak of horrific violence. Criticizing and complaining is a waste of time and effort. Each broadcaster, big and small, is struggling to find a narrative, a structure to events. And all of us, viewers everywhere, create our own narrative.
Language is beggared by the images. All the blather doesn't matter. Pundits taking positions, using the occasion to prop up some partisan point, are redundant. Television has to fill airtime; it declines to rely only on images and spare, elemental reporting. There are times when that approach works. During the invasion of Iraq in 2003, BBC World News would preface its hourly news with footage aired without words. It was enormously powerful. No words that journalists could utter could match the impact. Situations of chaos and horror flush out the good, the bad and the stupid in TV coverage.
But elevating one channel's coverage over another is a waste of time. It's up to us to forge our own chronicle, to bring our sense of humanity and, eventually, common sense to the circumstance. It takes time to digest horrific events, and we should allow ourselves that, rather than expect television to mould a sinister saga into something easily graspable.
Some people are more familiar with proximity to abominable violence than others. That will help shape their narrative and sense of how to move forward. On Friday afternoon, I was in a bar watching a soccer game from Europe with a friend, and colleague Cathal Kelly was there for part of it. It was a playoff qualifier for next year's Euro 2016 tournament. When the match ended and we called for the bill, the server brought it and said, "Do you guys know about what's happening in Paris?" We didn't. He switched the TV channel to an all-news station.
I had that old, familiar feeling. Of rage, not despair. I grew up in Ireland when the threat of murderous violence spilling over from Northern Ireland was constant. I remember the car bombings in Dublin, done by one side or the other. The Friday afternoon bombings in May, 1974, that killed dozens. People going home from work, doing some shopping or getting a haircut. Blown apart. Hundreds injured. The smell of cordite and the burnt-out wreckage hung over the city for days.
You could despair. You could be afraid. I watched the news about the suicide bombers outside the stadium last Friday, where France was playing Germany in a friendly, exhibition game. Me, I've covered soccer from 17 countries on four continents and never felt afraid. The hooligans never materialized, the protests that happened were peaceful. Now this heinous development.
My narrative is anchored in rage. That rage isn't directed at Muslims or refugees. I understand that many people now fear the arrival of Syrian refugees in Canada. As I'm writing this, the TV news is telling me that multiple U.S. states are refusing to allow Syrian refugees to relocate to their territory. And CBC NN is telling me that Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall is calling on the new government to suspend its Syrian refugee plan. Right. Well, what's the alternative? Put them in refugee camps where the young men can be turned into budding terrorists?
Wall has created his own narrative. We all do. And then, sometimes, television helps shape yours. More by airing unfiltered emotion than covering the news. Thus it was for me and many others when John Oliver opened his show on HBO with a rant. "As of now, we know this attack was carried out by gigantic f---ing assholes; unconscionable, flaming assholes; possibly working with other f---ing assholes; definitely working in service of an ideology of pure assholery," Oliver said.
That's an acceptable narrative, to me. Now you use your humanity and common sense on yours. TV can't do it for you. It can help, but it's up to you.