"Our society allows us to happily consume others' grief"

The anthropologist Cristina Sánchez-Carretero has researched mass outpourings of grief, including the reaction to Madrid's March 11 bombings of 2004

If an alien civilization ever decided to study humans, the most logical way to do so would be to infiltrate one of our communities and have their agents analyze our behavioral guidelines and hidden codes over a long period of time. It would be a fascinating job of observation - almost like being the perfect foreign correspondent. There is a lot of all that in the research of anthropologist Cristina Sánchez-Carretero. This native of Talavera de la Reina (Toledo) in her early forties says that a good ethnologist must learn to listen before acting and above all to empathize with other people. In other words, one must shed personal prejudice and feel what the others are feeling.

Growing up, she used to love telling stories. Later, she began to listen to them instead. "I was fascinated by the ethnographer's working method; it's a way to understand from within the reality around me," she says. After moving to Galicia with her family, she later lived in the United States for almost five years, getting a doctorate at Pennsylvania University and working as a teaching assistant there. "The difference between your kind of research and ours is the time and undiluted dedication we devote to a specific issue," she tells this reporter.

"At a traumatic time what matters the most are words and the role of poetry"
"We don't know the people who died, but we go to those places anyway"

And yet, in such terrible and exceptional situations as the March 11, 2004 train bombings in Madrid, which killed 191 and left over 1,800 wounded almost seven years ago, anthropologists sometimes need to get on the move as quickly as reporters. And so it was in this case. Dr Sánchez-Carretero and her colleagues at the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) analyzed the monumental citizen response to the terrorist massacre, embarking on a team project that was set up in just a matter of hours, and which resulted in a historical archive of popular grief made up of over 70,000 items left by people at the site of one of the bomb attacks, in Atocha station.

The investigation examined many of the feelings that welled up inside people following the mass assassination perpetrated by Islamist terrorists. Humans tend to turn trivial things into a heritage that acquires value over time, and that is exactly the process which the urban anthropologist studies. The train bombings did not just cause terrible suffering to the direct victims and their relatives; they also triggered a reaction from Spanish society, an explosion of collective pain, and an unexpected use of public spaces whose analysis required an exercise in "emergency anthropology," says Sánchez-Carretero from the temporary headquarters of CSIC's new Science of Heritage Institute in Santiago de Compostela.

It's a cold, bright morning in the Galician city, and Sánchez-Carretero takes her time answering each question, often gesturing with her hands to emphasize her point. Putting some distance between yourself and your subject seems like a necessary requirement in her line of work, yet she admits that emotional involvement can sometimes be quite strong. And when she remembers those tragic moments in March 2004, and what came after, this scientist's warm voice becomes heavy with feeling.

Question. Were you in Madrid when the trains blew up?

Answer. I found out when I arrived at the CSIC building in Medinaceli, very near Atocha. I remember everyone was very silent. We were listening to the radio, in shock... a few colleagues were walking in from Atocha, and I remember not knowing what to do at that moment.

Q. People began lighting candles in various places. Was that instantaneous?

A. It must have happened almost immediately, on the train tracks themselves. We decided to start the project a couple of days after the attacks. By the time we got there, there were already lots of tributes to the victims.

Q. Spontaneous altars. What were they like?

A. There was a bit of everything. Candles, flowers and lots of messages, both to the deceased and for the terrorists. There were religious messages and political messages. And lots of poetry. The researcher Paloma Díaz Mas analyzed the literary part of it, in which the oral part is mixed with literature. At a time of crisis, of a death that is felt socially like a traumatic event, what matters the most are words and the role of poetry. The poetic presence in the 70,000 documents is stunning.

Q. What can this memorial of grief be compared to?

A. In Genoa there was a series of protests against the G8 over the death of Carlo Giuliani [an antiglobalization activist shot during a protest on July 20, 2001]. There were similar esthetics at the site of his death. Or after the assassination of Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam [a Dutch film director murdered by an Islamist fanatic in 2004]. And of course, there's the 9/11 attacks in New York. They are either anonymous victims whose death is socially felt like one's own death, in the sense that it could have happened to any one of us, or else they are media celebrities - but they produce a similar social reaction. This type of death triggers a public expression of grief, and not just in socially sanctioned spaces like churches, cemeteries or city halls. It happens in places where there is no institution behind telling people: "that's where you've got to go." It's a bit like the flowers placed at spots on the road where somebody died in a traffic accident. What is the difference? The road wreaths are reminders of a tragic death that requires specific action. That tradition goes back a long time. It is not just about remembering the deceased. Their death was pointless. But there is a relationship between the person who lays down the wreath and the dead person. What we are talking about now is second-generation grief. We don't know the people who died, but we go to those places anyway. The phenomenon is linked to mass media. We did not detect similar occurrences in Africa or Asia, though we did on the island of Bali, after the attacks there [in October 2002, leaving 202 dead, mostly foreigners]. It was the tourists who deposited the objects for the dead tourists. It's a Western concept. This year we are publishing a book that analyzes the reaction of the local population of Bali, who did not want memorials or for people to leave public offerings to the dead. The gods had to be appeased, and that could only be done at their temples, not at the place of the massacre. There was a conflict between the different ways of expressing grief in public. The turning point was the death of Princess Diana. Nowadays, if there is a traumatic death, a massacre of anonymous people, or a celebrity dies, it is expected that a similar ritual of grief will take place. And this sort of thing did not happen 30 years ago.

Q. What differences did you find between the massive expression of grief over the World Trade Center attacks and the train bombings in Madrid?

A. In the United States, people rallied around the nation, around patriotism; the US flag was everywhere, it was an unvarying theme. The ties here were more local: "We are all Madrid," or "we are all that train."

Q. Was there any message that particularly touched you at those spontaneous altars?

A. There were many. The messages were heartbreaking and went straight to the heart. The messages... (pause) the drawings. The children's drawings. More than words, there were a great many drawings, pain seen through a child's eye. That is an overwhelming thing.

Q. Do you remember any of those images in particular?

A. Rather than a specific text or drawing, what moved me the most was this need to communicate, to seek out spaces for communication. A child left a drawing, and another one who went by added a comment, and a third wrote something else on it. I remember an image of two towers joined together by a train. Or messages that said in Arabic and Spanish: "Immigrants are not to blame." There was a very moving item from Alcalá de Henares, a library index card that, rather than indicate the title of the book, its author and so on, gave out information about a librarian who had died in the attacks. We also found a packet of Kleenex and initially thought it was garbage, but then we saw it was carefully stuck to a piece of paper to symbolize the tissues that were used that day. There were typewritten poems at a time when typewriters are no longer used. A copy of The Little Prince left as an offering. Or torn curtains used to write things on or stick things to. There were many electronic messages left on [train operator] Renfe's machines. Things that might end up in the trash can end up as a piece of our heritage, and that depends on the decision of various social agents.

Q. If you close your eyes, what picture do you get in your mind after contemplating these public demonstrations of grief?

A. I see variety. I see the multiplicity of voices that emerge out of those 70,000 documents; voices joined by the need to communicate and to find these spaces, by the need to act. The messages relating to conflict and hate, the racist messages, were a minority. Most of the messages dealt with the construction of a different world, and employed terms such as peace [...] The industries of fear were articulated differently here from the United States.

Fear, the anthropologist explains, is the ultimate control mechanism. The philosopher and psychologist Michel Foucault had already warned about it. The most sublime form of fear as a tool of control is the invisible kind that sticks to the body. People are afraid without there being a palpable external cause, so that each individual becomes his or her own censor. Fear is much less present in the 70,000 offerings left behind after the Madrid attacks than in similar manifestations elsewhere. Although Sánchez-Carretero notes that she has not investigated this specific aspect of public grief following 9/11, her impression is that fear was more explicit following that massacre. US news programs often refer to a color code invented by the US National Security Department to describe the risk of a terrorist attack. Last December, there was a "code yellow," meaning elevated risk of an imminent attack.

"The industries of fear don't even bother concealing themselves; they are very efficient," says the researcher. "We have them in Spain, although they are better concealed. It would be most interesting to develop a line of research on the industries of fear. Citizens can be freer if they can objectivize these fears and locate them socially." If the current crisis could be separated from the feeling of fear, she says, our situation would be entirely different, and there would be greater freedom of action.

Q. Lately, we have seen violent protests in Europe: students taking over downtown London, the Greek population's rejection of its government's economic austerity policies, or the protests in Rome against Berlusconi. There were headlines like "Rome in flames." The images are leading some people to deduce that the social order is cracking, or that the crisis is bringing people's fear to the fore. Do you think this is an exaggeration?

A. I wouldn't call it that. It's about focusing on something repeatedly in the media. I live in a village near here, Biduido de Abaixo, seven kilometers away. And I feel tremendously disconnected from a headline like "Rome in flames," almost as much as if I were going to the Amazon jungle. I'm not sure to what extent those images reflect a general situation. I turn on the TV and see images that seem straight out of a sci-fi movie. I don't know whether everything is really falling apart, but what I do know is that the selection of images seeks to create the impression that everything is falling apart. A very interesting study researched whether the effect of media images changed people's behavior or their perception of reality, in reference to the demonstrations of grief over the death of Diana of Wales. Eighty percent of the British population thought they had changed the way they express grief, and that Britons were no longer reserved people who express grief at home and never cry in public. Later, a series of very standardized surveys asked those same people and their relatives whether they had personally externalized their grief that way. The percentage dropped radically to barely 10 percent. Images have a great power to change our perception of society. What is unclear is whether they change our own behavior.

Q. People usually don't externalize their grief out of shame. It is not looked kindly upon. Someone who is still crying over the death of a loved one six months later is told that he or she should have gotten over it already. And yet we are constantly bombarded with news of murders. Isn't there a contradiction in this consumption of other people's pain?

A. There is a separation between one's own grief and the grief felt by others. And the latter is quite happily consumed. We put our own pain in the hands of the grief professionals, the funeral homes, and personal loss creates very small social circles. Before, when the entire village would go to the cemetery with the bereaved family, you felt much more accompanied socially. Now, we find that death is relegated to the consumption of unknown people's deaths. There is a gap there. In all cultures, death is an integral part of how we relate to one another. We must not hide it.

Q. As a researcher of heritage and conflict, you and your colleagues had the opportunity to study Madrid's Carabanchel penitentiary before its demolition in October 2008. How is it different from other prisons?

A. That prison was built in 1944 when its star-shaped construction model - a circular central structure with radial arms - was no longer being built. It is an old-fashioned model; many jails were built that way in the late 19th century. [...] They were based on the theories of the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who posited that a minimum amount of personnel working out of the central area could better control the prisoners and improve surveillance. This penitentiary is peculiar in that all prisoners went there before being convicted or not. Everyone stopped at Carabanchel before going to their definitive destinations. Carabanchel has a special place in the memories of the Franco era. The neighborhood labored for many years under the stigma of that name, which was synonymous with repression.

Q. What does a derelict penitentiary on the verge of demolition have to offer to anthropology?

A. You can research its state of dereliction and what the prison was used for. It was a place of pilgrimage for graffiti artists. Part of the building was occupied by Romanians. Another part of the project carried out by a historian analyzes the role Carabanchel played for political and civilian prisoners in the past. The degradation process was very quick. We first went in when there were still jail bars, but by 2008 they had practically disappeared. People came with vans to take all the iron and sell it.

Q. Do you agree with the decision to demolish it?

A. The neighborhood of Carabanchel is socially cohesive. It repeatedly asked for part of the prison to be preserved, specifically the central dome. The point was to be able to talk about the area's past from the very spot where the penitentiary was built. But their demands went unnoticed. Politicians should have paid more attention. In our project, I am building a theoretical model to know what to do with unwanted heritage such as this one. There are alternatives like turning them into museums, which is what they did with the jail where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. But it is important to keep emotional ties in mind. You have to be careful when you want to make a museum out of pain or torture.

Cristina Sánchez-Carretero, anthropologist.
Cristina Sánchez-Carretero, anthropologist.XULIO VILLARINO
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