In a manner as stylized and moving as a Greek chorus, victims of the day's international disasters give voice to a nightly lament of human suffering on the television news:
Sometimes there are large numbers of people cast into a single tragedy, with individuals stepping forth to give their individual plaints. The maimed and the bereaved tell of the earthquakes, floods and bombs that suddenly wrecked their lives. Relatives of crash victims recount tales of abruptly ended jaunts--for a long-planned vacation, a routine business trip, a honeymoon--as they set forth on their own grim and unexpected travels.
Or it may be only one piteous family. New widows gather their orphaned children and display their wedding photographs with the newly murdered. Parents of young criminals, flailing in bewilderment, produce graduation photographs of scrubbed youngsters shining with promise.
From the sidelines, we hear neighbors saying they could never have imagined such a thing, or that they could have; near-victims submerging their own relief in sympathy for those who did not escape, witnesses telling us where they were when it happened and what they surmised before they realized what it was.
As a journalist, Miss Manners has no quarrel with these shows of tragedy except when they are involuntary and intrusive. Unfortunately, they often are. In the very midst of disaster, shouts for commentary are made to dazed people struggling to realize what has happened.
That it is essential for people to know the world, in all its horrors, is something she considers beyond argument. One always expects something to come of the fear and pity it inspires.
Even if the inevitable announcements of "a wake-up call" and "stepping up security" make one wonder what precautions could possibly have been blithely omitted after the previous round of tragedies and declarations, one needs to hear them. And the charitable responses made should be a comfort not only to those who benefit directly, but also to those whose faith in human kindness has faltered.
Furthermore, Miss Manners recognizes that the people involved sometimes very much want to reach the public--to memorialize a victim, to make a point about causal social errors, or simply to connect to the larger world at a time when they are desperately in need of distraction.
But from Miss Manners's particular and peculiar branch of journalism, she feels there is something wrong about the format. We have made public mourning into an obligation. We have even demanded that the mourners provide a running commentary explaining the social and personal meaning of the experience.
There has always been a public side to tragedy. Ceremonies are a tribute to the dead and a comfort to the living. Ensuing lawsuits may demand the presence of mourners, who often seek relief in working for social reforms.
But there is supposed to be a private side, as well. For a short time between a tragedy and its public aftermath, and for a longer period when these are concluded, there used to be a period of mourning observed, allowing those most concerned to withdraw from general view, where they could quietly receive the sympathy of their chosen intimates.
That first moment, when they are left reeling, is exactly what has been taken away. Not everyone wants to shed tears in public. Not everyone has a ready explanation when hit by the worst mysteries of life. Sometimes the greatest comfort sympathetic strangers can offer is the respectful restraint of their own curiosity. A polite public restrains its impulse to rubberneck.
Feeling incorrect? Address your etiquette questions (in black or blue-black ink on white writing paper) to Miss Manners, in care of this newspaper.
(c) 2000, Judith Martin