How can we live with the constant threat of violence?

Arianne Zwartjes’s new book ‘These Dark Skies’ considers the brutality of our time, its causes and how we might change it.


I was visiting Tucson, where I’d lived for over 40 years, when the Russians invaded Ukraine. Air Force jets circled in the skies above us as I watched my 5-year-old grandsons on the playground. I’d just listened to a podcast interview with a woman in the suburbs of Kyiv, who described how children were helping to fill windows with books because no one had sandbags. In preparation for bomb blasts, the mothers were teaching their toddlers to pretend they were turtles: to fall to the floor on their bellies, cover their ears with their hands, and open their mouths, a game reminiscent of the Cold War’s “duck and cover.” If you fall to the ground with your mouth open, she explained, it helps protect your lungs during an explosion. 

Later, looking at the photos of the bombed-out buildings, I knew that neither sandbags nor books could have helped; those children were dead. And then the mass murder at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, happened. There’s no need to repeat what an AR-15 can do to children’s bodies. But in both cases, it seemed to me, children’s deaths were being shrugged off as collateral damage.

It was in this raw state that I started reading These Dark Skies: Reckoning with Identity, Violence, and Power from Abroad by Arianne Zwartjes. “I began this book trying to write about violence and connection,” Zwartjes writes in the prologue, “which really means it was about what it means to be human … what it means to be mortal and to live in a body that is subject to violence.” Zwartjes and I met as colleagues at the University of Arizona, and I had read her earlier book, Detailing Trauma: A Poetic Anatomy, so I was prepared for both the emotional depth and intellectual rigor of her writing. But what impressed me most about These Dark Skies was her curation of the voices of artists, writers, historians, human rights activists, psychologists and theorists from all over the world.  

“Mirror Shield Project,” Social engagement, 2016-ongoing.

The book is partly a memoir, grounded in the experiences of a person who has traveled widely and thought deeply about, as Susan Sontag put it, the “question of right action … the duties of being human.” Zwartjes, who has a home in Leadville, Colorado, is a wilderness EMT who has led trips into the wilds of Wyoming, New Mexico and Colorado and trained people in emergency medicine in many parts of the world. It was from her that I learned, in 2017, that protocols for emergency responders had changed. It used to be that they were taught the “time-honored doctrine of ‘scene safety trumps all’” — in other words, “to stage and wait for casualties to be brought to the perimeter.” But now, with the preponderance of military weapons like AR-15s,  the greatest danger is that victims will bleed out before getting care and responders are being trained in "tactical combat casualty care.” She notes that we live in a time in which “everyday citizens are being encouraged to carry tourniquets and blood-clotting bandages,” and I think immediately of the “Stop the Bleed” training I’ve been asked to take as a teacher. 

Today, such violence is officially classed as “intentional civilian mass-casualty incidents,” she writes. But she immediately goes from clinical to empathetic ways of knowing:

I think about what it means to believe you’re secure, safe, and yet to face this kind of unpredictable violence. About how, in a way, it brings those of us who tend to think of ourselves as safe … closer to the reality of unpredictability, hazard, and violence so many people face daily: some of them in our own communities, some of them in other parts of this globe we all share. …

How do we live with the constant threat of violence? What causes it? And what can we do to change those conditions? In These Dark Skies, Zwartjes tackles these questions, conducting her inquiries in a variety of contexts. What about the historical and current violence of our own country’s policies? she asks, remembering the disparities she saw while in Latin America and Israel. How does the “amnesia of history” in Western Europe and the U.S. prevent us from addressing poverty and a lack of opportunity, which are not only catalysts for violence but a kind of violence in themselves? (Coming from the U.S., she readily identifies the “colonial continuities” — a phrase she says should be in all our vocabularies — that link this country to the Netherlands and France.) What about the violence of denying refugees a place of safety? (She explores this question when she travels to Greece to work in a refugee camp.) How does state-sponsored violence create an atmosphere that legitimizes personal violence? (I write “MAGA” in the margin, thinking immediately of the attack on our Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.) And what are the connections and disconnections among all these types of violence?

How do we live with the constant threat of violence? What causes it? And what can we do to change those conditions?

“I think of the idea of expected deaths versus unexpected deaths,” Zwartjes writes, noting that we are horrified by some deaths because we expect “people like us” to be safe in shopping malls and theaters. But we are less shaken by the deaths of refugees, who drown in flimsy boats trying to escape war and starvation, because we think of them as “people who are subject to death.” She makes a distinction between precariousness, which is a fact of life, and precarity, which is caused by human actions and policies. Her wife, Anna, who emigrated from Russia when she was young, says she thinks “it’s an illusion of the wealthy, to think that (one) could be independent and self-reliant and prepared” when a society descends into instability. In this way, with Anna as her interlocutor, Zwartjes often takes an examination of a specific situation and, as poet Brian Turner notes in his endorsement of the book, uses it as a doorway into larger conversations about privilege, identity, trauma, empathy and possible action.

Amazed by the relevance of Zwartjes‘ observations about violence, I found myself dog-earing pages and writing “Ukraine” or “Uvalde” in the margins, scribbling “Baldwin,” “Sontag,” “Abramovic” and “Bausch” when I encountered artists I knew and underlining the names of those who were new to me. Throughout the book, Zwartjes writes about dancers and performance artists who have borne witness to violence with their bodies. Their stories create a kind of respite in the experience of reading, despite the deep seriousness of their work. The need to create, to give voice, is, very simply, hopeful.

“Mirror Shield Project,” Social engagement, 2016-ongoing.

The book’s final essay, “Radical Hope,” introduces the work of Cannupa Hanska Luger, a Native American artist, who says that activist artists “live on the periphery. But we are the mirrors. We are the reflective points that break through a barrier.” Luger had seen pictures of the 2014 Euro Maidan protests in Ukraine where women and children had carried bathroom mirrors into the streets “to show riot policemen what they looked like.” He then designed inexpensive, unbreakable mirrored shields for the pipeline protesters at Standing Rock in 2016. Zwartjes describes the scene:

 In the gold-crimson of late day sun, sixty or more tall, mirrored shields are being held up, reflecting the landscape before them, the long orange skirts or tan boots of the people holding them showing beneath. In the background, the winter sky goes from turquoise to purple. A few trees,their arms bare, are just visible in the background. …

 Another image. . . shows a single mirrored shield (as it) reflects a blurred, dreamlike image of what lies before it: sandwiched in between yellow grasses and the stretching gray-white sky is a row of black-clad riot cops, faces obscured by helmets, indistinct weapons held aloft.

Often, I had to close the book and go for a walk, allowing nature, the clouds of the high Oregon desert, to give me some time, some distance, so I could be more deeply in conversation with what I’d just read.  Zwartjes did the same thing when she was writing the book in Maastricht, Netherlands, where she was living with Anna and taking her elderly dog on long walks through the fields. She noticed the skies, always, the changing vegetation as the seasons shifted, the faces of the people in a town where she sometimes felt like an outsider, although one who could “pass.”

We get a sense of her daily domestic life with Anna, their mealtime conversations, how they bicycle through the streets to shop and stop at local cafés for beer. They take short trips to the Alps to go skiing, and they visit Anna's mother in Menton, France. It is in Menton, on the eve of their visit, that a man drives a truck into a Bastille Day crowd, killing 84 people, some of them friends of Anna’s mother.

And there it is: violence punctuating an ordinary day. The jets that circled Tucson as I was growing up were an ordinary part of the landscape, yet a constant reminder of the war in Vietnam and, by extension, of the possibility of war here — or everywhere. They felt less like protectors than dark predators, just on the edge of my vision. And now, writing this, thinking of those circling jets after reading These Dark Skies, I am reminded of the armed drones that hover over so much of the world, and of the father in Gaza who pops balloons over his sleeping infant so that the child will get used to loud percussive noises at night.

As I finished These Dark Skies, I was reminded of Nazim Hikmet’s poem “On Living,” which ends with these lines:

You must grieve for this right now
— you have to feel this sorrow now —
for the world must be loved this much 
                                        if you’re going to say “I lived”. . .

Beth Alvarado is the author of four books, including Anxious Attachments, which won the 2020 Oregon Book Award for Creative Nonfiction, and Jillian in the Borderlands: A Cycle of Rather Dark Tales. She is working on a travel memoir called Unreachable Cities.

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