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Lyrics and Life

In the wake of tragedy, a call for humanity and understanding

By Caitlin Ward


What's Going On

Marvin Gaye

Mother, mother
There's too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There's far too many of you dying
You know we've got to find a way
To bring some lovin' here today - Yeah

Father, father
We don't need to escalate
You see, war is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate
You know we've got to find a way
To bring some lovin' here today

Picket lines and picket signs
Don't punish me with brutality
Talk to me, so you can see
Oh, what's going on
What's going on
Yeah, what's going on
Ah, what's going on

In the mean time
Right on, baby
Right on
Right on

Father, father, everybody thinks we're wrong
Oh, but who are they to judge us
Simply because our hair is long
Oh, you know we've got to find a way
To bring some understanding here today

Picket lines and picket signs
Don't punish me with brutality
Talk to me
So you can see
What's going on
Yeah, what's going on
Tell me what's going on
I'll tell you what's going on

At the time of writing this, it was yesterday that an armed gunman brought downtown Ottawa to a standstill. I wouldn't be surprised if every second article in every second paper had begun with some iteration of that sentence in the week that followed.

Marvin Gaye, What's Going On

Obviously, it's a tragic thing - senseless death is always tragic. It's also a scary thing - the halls of government in Canada have been breached, and that makes many Canadians feel a bit less safe. It's a political thing, too - CBC's coverage of the events was calm and as neutral as possible, but it seemed as if every other news source and just about every vaguely politically minded person I know was speculating wildly about what was happening and perhaps more significantly, why it was happening. That part is a pretty fruitless conversation until you find the perpetrators and hear what they have to say, but it didn't seem to stop many people.

For a lot of Canadians, though, it's got to be a very strange thing, too. On the one hand, it's easy to get caught up in the drama of something so crazy, especially as it's not the sort of thing that generally happens in our country. On the other hand, I know a lot of people (myself included) were really at a loss about how we were supposed to feel, or act, or interact with news of this kind. I've got to be honest: this is not what I had intended to write my column on this week, but I scrapped what I was already working on and sat down to write it this morning because it felt so massive, I couldn't imagine writing about anything else.

For me, it's all brand new, but by the time it goes to print it won't be. This is how I predict it will go in the coming weeks: from the way news outlets and our government have broadcast it, it feels as if it's supposed to be the most important thing that's ever happened. Some news sources (and the Harper government) take it as a rallying point for why we need to be more proactive in our military intervention and erosion of privacy under the banner of, "Islam hates our freedom." Other sources point to the fact that there is a strong correlation between western military intervention and terrorism, under the banner of, "Islam hates our bombs." And then that gets shouted down with, "soldiers died!" Then the response will be: "how many innocents have died in the war on terror?" Then it will all descend into rhetoric and grandstanding, and no one will be watching, but I will curl up in a ball with my hands over my ears going, "la la la la la la la la!"

Let's check back at press time and see if that's exactly what I'm doing, shall we?

Now, I do mean to be a bit flippant, but I don't mean to be disrespectful. When I was driving home yesterday listening to the CBC, and the announcer talked about Nathan Cirillo, one of the fallen soldiers, I started crying. But I didn't start crying because "Islam hates Canadian democracy," and I didn't start crying because "Canada has lost its way as a peacekeeping nation under a warmongering prime minister." I started crying because a person has died, and his name was Nathan. Loss of life is always abhorrent.

What I worry about in all of this is that he, and Patrice Vincent, will stop being people who died, and instead become symbols. Whether they are used to justify seeking vengeance in the name of some abortive idea of freedom (a conservative ideology), or become the faces of an oppressive western military that got what was coming to them (a leftist ideology), we run the real risk of dehumanizing both of them in the name of soapboxes.

It's not that it's more important to maintain the humanity of these two men than any other two people. It's that denying anyone's humanity often leads to poor decision-making. Rhetoric can talk you in or out of just about anything, but if it's not concretely tied to real people and real communities and the implications for those real people and communities, I don't know how much it's worth. If we make this shooting about an attack on democracy, then it's not really about people. If we make this about how much we dislike the Harper government, it's again not really about people.

And as often happens, all of this has brought me in mind of Marvin Gaye. Well, Gaye and Obie Benson, who wrote What's Going On. The issues about long hair the song raises are a little less relevant these days, but it's interesting to me that Benson wanted to write the song after witnessing a bloody clash between protesters and police in Berkeley in 1969. The song is much less angry than many of its contemporary anti-war songs, but it's about a call for humanity and for understanding. Whatever happens in the next few weeks, whether I end up with my hands over my ears or not, I hope people remember that call.

Ward is a freelance writer and aspiring documentary filmmaker based in Saskatoon. You can find her short bursts of insight and frustration at

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