By Rick Snedeker, Op-Ed published in the Sioux Falls (SD) Argus Leader, March 21, 2018
Quick, when was the last time you personally experienced dismembered bodies randomly strewn across a roadway after a high-speed, head-on car crash? The bloody ravage left behind after a gruesome murder fueled by rage? The soul-emptying silence after a suicide by hanging? The bullet-shredded corpses of children and uncomprehending pleas of the wounded moments after yet another mindless school massacre mercifully ends?
Probably never, for most of us.
We Americans live in a generally kindly, compassionate, Christianized society that instinctively wants to shield everyone – and effectively does – from the full misery of catastrophes that routinely assault us in the real world.
Indeed, while traffic fatalities, homicides and all-too-common school shootings are always dutifully reported by American media, news purveyors virtually never publish or broadcast the actual bloody mayhem in a frank, brutally honest way. The intent of this courtesy is good while the consequences are not.
By not publicizing these human cataclysms in their transcendent awfulness, we dilute their true impact, their reality – hiding and thus withholding from everyone the means of appropriate despair and outrage that might propel us to do something truly collective and corrective. It’s generous of compassion but useless. Therefore, we retain in our memories not the unspeakable images wrought by the ruthless meat-grinder of human destruction, but abandoned backpacks scattered helter skelter on silent schoolroom floors, sobbing mothers desperately clutching their children, men with 1,000-yard stares, painfully impotent in the face of a horror they cannot protect their families against, indeed a missed opportunity that’s already over.
We retain sanitized delusions. So, we really see nothing and do nothing. Not after the Feb. 15 assault-rifle executions of 14 students and three adults and wounding of many more, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Not in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Mass., (20 children under the age of seven died, seven staff; the guman’s mother was killed earlier that day). Not at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Va., in 2007 (33 victims; the gunman killed himself). Not at the University of Texas-Austin in 1966 (16 victims; police killed the gunman). Not at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., in 1999 (12 students and a teacher were killed; the gunmen committed suicide). Not in American school massacres of 6-8 people each in 1976, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2012, not to mention the “Bath School Disaster” in Bath Township, Mich., on May 18, 1927 (45 dead, 59 wounded, in multiple bomb explosions detonated by a disgruntled school board member). And on and on we go. And that’s just school mayhem.
I doubt anything will significantly change as the body count grows and the deadened lives of survivors proliferate. We will continue to turn away from these horrors as we always have, and those who document such things will continue to sanitize them for our own protection while telling us – and perhaps more importantly, showing us – only part of the story.
I remember taking a driver’s ed class in my Arizona high school in the 1960s, when we were shown an infamous film, “Signal 30,” which did not hide the war-zone-like reality inherent in traffic fatalities. And in technicolor. It was shocking and terrible, and I do believe it made me a safer driver than I would have been otherwise. Scared straight, as it were. And I also recall films about the holocaust in my high school history class, in which deep piles of Jewish corpses – “waste” from the Nazis’ “final solution” – were shown being shoveled by heavy equipment into mass graves.
These two authentic, in-your-face film experiences changed my view of the world, taught me that we don’t live in Disneyland.
I cannot fathom how agonizing it would have been, especially for already traumatized survivors, if someone had gone into that fated Florida high school Feb. 14 and filmed the immediate aftermath of the unfathomable horror there – and then broadcast the images nationwide on every network and cable channel and social media site. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted the heavy responsibility of deciding whether or not that should have been done.
But, if it had, I bet we would be having an entirely different discussion now. Perhaps one where the will to change – suddenly soaked in stark reality – would actually carry the day.
Rick Snedeker is a retired newspaper and magazine editor and writer living in Mitchell. He writes for various media and at Godzooks blog. My Voice columns should be 500 to 700 words. Submissions should include a portrait-type photograph of the author. Authors also should include their full name, age, occupation and relevant organizational memberships.
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