Where Mass Graves are 'Normal', Normality Isn't

As massacres become a weekly event in Venezuela, mass graves are crafting a new abnormal normality, rendering empathy impossible and dehumanizing us little by little.

Eleven bodies were found in a mass grave in Barlovento last week, apparently murdered by military officers; another mass grave was found in the PGV Prison in San Juan de los Morros in October. The pran (chief thug) allegedly hid away his dead enemies in it. Eleven men were murdered in iconic 23 de Enero neighborhood in central Caracas by government forces supposedly working to “Liberate the People” as our most recent security plan Orwellianly styles itself. That same week, a massacre that resulted in twelve deaths was reported in Tumeremo, product of a face-off between two gangs struggling for control of the illegal mining there, a reminder of the massacre of twenty-eight miners that occurred in March that was initially denied by the government. That same week in October, three men were murdered in a prison in Táchira and then cannibalized by fellow inmates.

These events defy comprehension. What are serial massacres called? How do we name large scale murder that doesn’t quite fit into full scale war, but rather local skirmishes between different power factions, often crime related, but often also intricately linked to official violence?

In Franz Kafka’s diary, the entry for the second day of August, 1914, reads  “Germany has declared war on Russia. In the afternoon, swimming lessons.”

We can’t even agree on how to count our dead. Much less how to name them. Even less, how to grieve for them. We have not only become desensitized to violence, we are now at a level that is desensitized to massacre, to piles of bodies stuffed in a hole so no one can see them.

In Franz Kafka’s diary, the entry for the second day of August, 1914, reads  “Germany has declared war on Russia. In the afternoon, swimming lessons.” Germany has declared war on Russia; life goes on.

News of death intersect with the trivialities of life. I guess in a sense, that is what life and death are all about.

At times we cannot do anything about cruelty and death. We have to go on living. “El muerto al hoyo y el vivo al bollo,” as the old saying puts it. But in Venezuela we don’t even have easy access to el bollo as bread lines extend for at least half an hour. What are we to do as massacres and common graves become our new normal?

A large trans-cultural research project on empathy was published on October by the Journal of TransCultural Psychology. Researchers analyzed a sample of more than 100,000 responses from people in 63 different countries.

When asked to rate how much we identified with phrases like “I often have tender feelings for people less fortunate than me” and “I often try to understand my friends better by taking their perspective of things”, Venezuelans scored as the second to least empathic country in the world.

What have eighteen years of collectivist rhetoric wrought? Where has the new man gone?

In large samples, empathy scores are often related to collectivism, tender and kind behavior, being reliable and dutiful, as well as life-satisfaction and happiness.

What have eighteen years of collectivist rhetoric wrought? Where has the new man gone?

Venezuelans tend to think of ourselves as affable, easygoing, gregarious people. That’s all surface if we can’t feel somebody else’s plight. Maybe we are too busy trying to survive. People chronically exposed to suffering fall pray to “the narcissism of the victim”: they lose the ability to think beyond their own victimhood, they lose the capacity to register the suffering of others. Or maybe we’re too busy partying. Probably these two apparently contradictory options go hand in hand. Whatever the reason, compassion has become as scarce as sugar and milk.

The social psychologist Ignacio Martín-Baró, researching on the effects of the civil war in El Salvador, concluded that chronic violence can set off what he called psycho-social trauma: the traumatic crystallization of aberrant and dehumanizing social relations, like those prevalent in the situation of civil war, a ‘normal abnormality’ that especially affects children, who must construct their identities and develop their lives within the network of these dehumanizing relations.

It pains me to realize how much of what we’re going through that characterization describes. There is so much to grieve in Venezuela, not just in our own neighborhood and not just in our own social group. With each passing day, we seem to be farther from finding a have a healthy way to live that grief.

Manuel Llorens

Manuel Llorens, is a psychologist and researcher, and an authentic Venezuelan perro verde as well.