Today marks the 50th anniversary of the murders of Carl Cooper, Fred Temple, and Auburey Pollard at the Algiers Motel in Detroit. I wrote an essay for Guernica on the legacy of John Hersey’s book The Algiers Motel Incident, the experience of teaching it in the aftermath of the Freddie Gray and Tamir Rice verdicts, and the uncanny experience of finding one of the killers, retired and happy, on Facebook.
I also asked why we are so content to call police killings like this “American tragedies.”
As many critics remarked at the time, with some of the typical American grandiosity about such things, the Algiers was a “peculiarly American tragedy.” Bigelow herself has described it this way, as did Hersey. What is meant by this phrase, besides that a racist murder was committed and then covered up, and that such a thing had happened before and would definitely happen again, is never quite clear. There is always something evasive, even self-righteous, about calling a police murder a “tragedy,” as we often do. After all, what makes a tragedy tragic (at least according to Aristotle) is not just that it is terrible—it’s that it’s terrible and it happens for no reason. But if it happens over and over again, then there is probably a reason. If the reason is unjust, that means it’s no longer a tragedy, but something more like an atrocity. Many of Hersey’s critics disliked his painstaking, non-narrative reconstruction of the affair because it lacked grandeur—there was no drama here, no satisfying catharsis, no story, no clear answers, and thus none of the tearful consolation a good tragedy gives us. There is only an approximation of what Mrs. Pollard calls a “hurt feeling.”