Saturday, July 13, 2013

warning: this is a photo of a dead body

Yesterday morning one of the websites I normally visit published a photograph of Trayvon Martin's dead body that it had received from another person who happened to save it after it accidentally appeared on the MSNBC website and before it was taken down.  If you do not want to see this photograph, don't advance any further below or click on the following link.  Adam Weinstein, the reporter who recieved the picture and spoke with the reader who had saved it, put it on the main Gawker page where it has opened a massive can of worms.  By the time I post this, a little over thirty hours later, 94 comments have appeared with another 671 waiting to be cleared by the administrator.

I want to take a moment to explain why I think it's important for Adam Weinstein and Gawker to publish the photo and for me (and I hope other bloggers and writers) to publish it too.  I grew up as part of the generation that watched the Vietnam War play out on our television screens and about whom it was reported we had seen x amount of violent acts, real and fictional, on television by adulthood (I cannot locate the number, but it has been increased in recent years and in 2004 stood at 8ooo acts, mostly without remorse, by age 11), as well as real violence among our peers and our families, and so was argued that we had lost our sense of disgust at real instances of violence playing out before us or at least our shock at it.  Somtimes, to an extent, I think that too, at least in my case.  I have seen people die and I have grown up seeing dead bodies in photos and videos.  I'm of the generation that fetishized the gore of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the squirm-inducing rape sequence of The Last House on the Left and topped those off with repeated watchings of The Faces of Death series.  I can open a newsmagazine or a website to be faced with photos of dead people and continue to eat my cereal without blinking.

Does this suggest that I, and by extension many people of my generation who've had similar experiences, have become inured to horrible death?  Perhaps.  I think often I've lost my shockability, and that may not be a bad thing.  Sometimes, when shock becomes the status quo, not to react may be the more transgressive act. 

But it does not mean we are immune to reacting to the photo or the death behind it.  I'm still profoundly affected by the filmed deaths of Nega Agha-Soltan and some unknown desparate jumper and, before them, the photos of Phan Thi Kim Phuc (who did not die) and Thich Quang Duc (who did).  These four instances alone are enough to reduce me to a state of distrust of human capacity for goodness if not tears.  The photograph of Trayvon Martin minutes after his death, while I did not bat an eyelash on seeing it, has worked my guts in such a way I can hardly explain.  Except to say this.

We are anesthetized to death, especially to the deaths of strangers or people who become famous for their deaths.  That doesn't mean we don't feel them but we often are placated by the implications they suggest of permanance.  Lee Harvey Oswald in an eternal flinch.  Saddam Hussein mouthing what may be prayers or deprecations with a noose around his throat.  The almost beatific posed dead of Matthew Brady's Civil War.  We act as if those deaths are closed or their acts don't continue beyond the moment recorded, as if they don't have loved ones who mourn them loudly.  To do so is to open something uncomfortable in us because they take on a greater realism than the deaths of family or friends we aren't privy to might have.  Once we recognize they have lives outside the frame we are in danger of feeling profound loss.

These images ought to affect us that way.  They ought to make us angry or depressed or frustrated or any of a number of other things.  What they should not make us is numb.  This, finally, is the truth of the trial of George Zimmerman that we need to be reminded of.  Whatever verdict is returned, whether he is found guilty of muder or manslaughter, whether it's believed Trayvon attacked him or Zimmerman incited him to attack, whether the "stand-your-ground" law is a mistake and whether the justice system in Florida is biased, this is what the trial is about.  A 17 year old unarmed boy is dead by another person's gun.  The looks on our faces when we say that ought to be as surprised, as disbelieving, as the look on Martin's.

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