When Everything Changes In An Instant 

The moments that define our generation, redefine our world and unite us

Every generation has a series of 'moments' that seem to define it. A moment that puts a permanent marker on its timeline. A shared moment that unites people. Sometimes it's a beautiful moment. Like Live Aid in the 1980s. But more often than not, it's the sad times, the tragedies, that leave those indelible marks on our lives. Because, of course, while we all smile or laugh at different things, the same things make all of us cry.

This week, for many young music fans, one such marker will have been made with the death of the very talented Amy Winehouse. The sudden ending of any young life is something that touches us all. Phrases like 'gone too soon' and 'the voice of a generation' appear in every article, every tribute. And for many of her fans, this will mark the first time they have been touched by the death of someone outside of their own circle but someone who, through her music, they felt connected to.While Amy Winehouse was a unique presence in our world, as each one of us is of course, this reaction, and the depth of it, is nothing new. For decades fans, enthusiasts and mere admirers of a legion of performers who suffered tragically early deaths have mourned in the same way. They gather, they lay flowers, and nowadays they tweet and post about it.

None of us are immune to it. Two years ago, when it was announced that pop star Michael Jackson had passed away on the eve of his much-vaunted comeback, I was caught off-guard by the depth of sadness I felt. Although I had enjoyed his music immensely, bought several albums and so on, I certainly hadn't been a contender for his 'no 1 fan'. So I was surprised by the effect his death had on me. I shed a few tears. I felt terribly sad. And in truth I hadn't, until then, truly appreciated the vital part that his music had played in my life, effectively forming much of the 'soundtrack' to my teenage years. And only when Jackson died did I understand how deeply affected the generations before mine had been by the death of Elvis Presley in 1977. Because when someone like that leaves us, someone who was an important part of a period of your life, it's a part you know you can never revisit.

Many people, of course, and not illogically, will argue that, when so much is going on elsewhere in the world, the media's preoccupation with the tragically early death of one seemingly troubled young woman is out of proportion. But many years of potentially fabulous music have been lost to us. And like other members of the so-called 'Forever 27 Club' – gifted performers who died at the same horribly early age – Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin among them, it is natural that questions like 'why?', 'how?' and 'what if?' pre-occupy us.

Some 'moments', of course have even greater reverberations.When Princess Diana was killed in that Paris car crash in 1997 much of the planet stopped in shock. With only a few exceptions, we felt bereft, rather lost and a very empty. Many people commented at the time that they felt upset to a point they would never have predicted. You didn't have to be a 'fan' of hers, or of the Royal Family, the British Monarchy or even be British to feel that way. She was young and she was beautiful, but it was the way Diana managed to touch the lives of complete strangers, most of whom had never laid eyes on her, never mind met her, that was, perhaps the reason her death left such a great hole in the lives of so many. 

Even more shocking are the moments in our lives that leave nothing feeling the same again. Because there are times that an event is so great, so devastating that there is simply no going back to 'normal'. Mass events like natural disasters – the Boxing Day Tsumani or the earthquakes in Pakistan and Japan are obvious examples – are awful enough but when the tragedy is entirely a human creation, it truly can change everything that follows it. 

That sunny Tuesday morning in New York when the second plane hit the World Trade Center we knew that the tragedy unfolding live on television was no accident. It was an attack. We knew in that moment that a terrorist attack of unprecedented proportions was under way and that life had changed irrevocably. In an instant it was as if a giant re-set button had been pressed and all the rules that governed how we lived our lives and what human beings were prepared to do to each other, and to themselves, had been rewritten. And we also knew that we would be dealing with the consequences, and the changes, for many years to come.

This new reality is something the people of Norway are only now learning to live with. After last week's bombing and shootings by what appears at present to be a lone extremist, Norwegians now have their own redefining moment. As with 9/11 there was life before the attack and life after it. What happened in Oslo and on the island of Utoya may never happen again, and let's hope to God it never does, but it may mark just the start of a very dark time. Only time will tell. But even the knowledge of what occurred on Friday afternoon has changed life in Norway.  You can't un-remember things, or pretend they didn't happen, particularly when they are of that enormity. That country's citizens, largely unaffected by any kind of turmoil since the end of World War Two, have to seriously consider whether their homeland can still be the peaceful and open haven on which they prided themselves.

As Norwegians are finding, as did Britons before them, when the attack comes from within, at the hands of one or more of their own citizens, by someone who, at first glance at least, seems just like everyone else, it's a an even harder adjustment to make. After all, at the height of the Cold War, we all knew precisely where to point our guns and send our spies. Now we're learning we may have to look closer to home for our 'enemies'.

Of course the men who hijacked four US airliners, or who set off bombs on the public transport systems of Madrid and London and the man who, last weekend, chose to murder scores of his compatriots all sought to achieve a new reality. That this will happen is unavoidable, but it is up to all of us to ensure that the new reality is not built according to their blueprint. And how Norway chooses to react to the attack is what will really shape the future. In the immediate aftermath of the 7/7 attacks on London's transport network, the British typically-practical insistence on getting back to normal almost immediately surprised many foreign observers. But came as no surprise to we Brits. We're nothing if not stubborn. We didn't let the Nazi blitz or the IRA get in the way, why should we do so for anyone else? Norwegians pride themselves on their openness, their libertarian outlook, their laid-back attitude and their political awareness. The early signs are that they intend to cling to those values even more securely.

And let's face it, while the world may have been changed around us, we don't need to change ourselves. And if we don't, then the things that are meant to be divisive, or weaken us, will serve only to unite us and make us stronger in their face. Because, whether we pull together in grief at the loss of a single soul, or gather to remember a thousand, it's the coming together that's the thing.