Of all the details to emerge from the Norway atrocities last Friday, one of the most harrowing was the thought of those frightened, bewildered youngsters leaping from the shores of Utøya, dragging their limbs through the gloppy water as if in some kind of terrible dream, gunfire crackling at their backs.
It's a bad thought, but there is worse. The mind recoils at the way things played out elsewhere on that tiny island, the final moments of those who didn't make it to the lake, those who confronted a blue-eyed monster, and with him an impossible truth: The absolute certainty of death.
The following day, Saturday, the 27-year-old singer Amy Winehouse was found dead in her London flat, most likely as a result of too much drink or too many drugs or a combination of these things. You wondered if her final moments would have felt like laboring through thick water, if that impossible certainty had occurred to her, too.
Reports of the singer's death and the monster's rampage danced around each other in the media. There was, as always, an incessant drive to accrete relevant facts: the murky political affiliations, the calamitous final performance. Swirling above it all was a kaleidoscopic representation of death—the urge to inflict it, the impulse to avoid it, the apparent desire to bring it on.
There's an old story, about a guy who interviewed people who had attempted suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. Many of these survivors, the story goes, told the interviewer that they'd changed their minds mid-air. Faced with the reality of their decision, they finally understood that they didn't want to die.
In the aftermath of the Norway massacres, Anders Breivik's father went on record saying his son should have turned the gun on himself. Breivik's rationale for not killing himself that day, apparently, is this: he wants the opportunity to explain his principles in court.
It's more probable that Breivik, like the kids he slaughtered and those who swam to safety, like those regretful plungers pin-wheeling their legs above the San Francisco Bay, simply didn't want to die.
Did Amy Winehouse? You could argue, for sure, that the singer's death looks like a kind of time-release suicide. People do kill themselves, despite the code that we all carry in our blood, the evolutionary edict to keep living. It's possible that we never really overcome this imperative, that successful suicides, rather than succumbing to despair, are temporarily blinded to the relationship between cause and effect—that is, the certainty somehow eludes them.
This idea calls to mind another old story—tapped by Ian McEwan in his novel Enduring Love—about two men holding the ropes of an airship that suddenly and unexpectedly took flight, who couldn't bring themselves to let go of the ropes until they could no longer hold on, by which time death was only seconds away. Maybe this is the one that best explains the end of Amy.