Even in the Tropics


Last week, a 23-year-old gunman walked into a middle school in Rio de Janeiro and shot 12 students dead before killing himself. As a country where, despite a brutal history that included chattel slavery and the decimation of the indigenous population, high-profile violence has been relegated mostly to drug- and crime-related situations, Brazil is stunned that a US-style school shooting could occur here. I won’t say that I was stunned, but I never would have predicted it, at least not in Rio. I had a difficult time believing that the type of social alienation necessary to incite this type of violent outburst could occur in a tropical place.

When I lived in Colombia, a movie debuted called Satanás, which dealt with a real-life shooting spree that occurred in Bogotá in the 80s. Situated high in the Andes, with a year-round high temperature typically in the 60s and a population of eight million, Bogotá was the type of place where you could envision a rampage – people tended to be reserved, “cold” compared to the hot-blooded lowlanders from tierra caliente. People go about their own business and often don’t know their neighbors. It’s a place easy to get lost in, to be forgotten about, to go unnoticed until you snap. I told friends when the film premiered that a similar type of rampage would never happen in the cities of the Caribbean coast, where I’d lived the few years before. With much of life lived outdoors and with neighbors intensely interested in the lives of others, to the point of nosiness, there’s just too many damn people in your business: someone would have noticed, “that boy ain’t right” long before the boy picked up a gun. I felt like communities in hot climates or with minority populations (communities of color in the US, specifically) were too close-knit. In the black community, we tend to deal with pressure through religion or pathological self-medication/self-destruction, to varying degrees of success. Rarely does violence in these hot, teeming places manifest in such an explosive, semi-indiscriminate fashion, instead being released in countless, smaller, targeted acts. That’s why I would never have pegged Rio as the site of an execution-style school shooting, and certainly not as the site of the first one in Brazil. São Paulo, with its bustling, temperate indifference, certainly. But not Rio.

Seems, infelizmente, I was wrong.

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One Response to Even in the Tropics

  1. Kevin says:

    Ernest: I shared your shock. It’s true, this was far more traumatic an event for Brazil than it would have been for the U.S. Even as Columbine was shocking at the time, I think it was more for its gruesome scale than it was for the simple fact that two alienated boys in suburban Colorado obtained guns and went to school to murder everyone there. I think some people were more surprised it didn’t happen before or more often -sadly, it has happened again and again since.

    For Brazil, the idea that a young person would go with clear intent to get a weapon and then murder a bunch of children in a school is akin to 9/11 in its absolute contrast with the prevailing sense of order to the universe at the time it happened. Brazilians, for all the violence they face, don’t have that kind of rage inside them as a people. It’s why even in a country that is still pervasively “machista” and homophobic, there is also a sense of palpable outrage when video images of gay bashings in Sao Paulo emerge on the local news.

    I wonder – what does this awful event mean? We can only watch and wonder now.

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