There are no adjectives that do not sound hackneyed when used to describe the New Zealand massacre. Words fail us at this moment. And, apparently, the controls at Facebook have failed us, as well, as the monitors scrambled to keep the live coverage from going viral, courtesy of the shooter himself.
Have we now reached some indescribable limits in human behavior, both as human actors and audience? Are we different people than the “greatest generation” of Americans who won the Second World War, and who were aghast at the scenes of Bergen-Belsen and Buchenwald and Dachau? The world was horrified by the early pictures that emerged from these indescribable scenes. Have we lost the capacity to be horrified with the advent of the internet?
The livestreamed videos of the New Zealand massacre are everywhere. Facebook, once it realized what was happening, struggled to get hold of the stream, but there were too many ways to circumvent their uploading controls. To what end are these videos being redistributed? Prurience? Voyeurism? Simple curiosity detached from feeling?
Susan Sontag, in a small book titled “Regarding the Pain of Others” — published in 2003 before the internet had reached its full potential for malevolence — says the following: “Ever since cameras were invented in 1839, photography has kept company with death … .” But also, “The image as shock and the image as cliché are two aspects of the same presence.”
The question must be asked: Has the internet with its ubiquitous presence and untrammeled video blabbing inured us to human suffering itself? In an article in the October 2018 Harpers magazine, Will Self (English writer, critic and general curmudgeon) considers this point and presents some recent research on the effects of reading on our technological devices (screens) as opposed to reading in the traditional paper-and-ink form of the book. He cites the studies of Anne Mangen of the Norwegian Reading Center, in which she proposes that “as our capacity for narrative engagement is compromised by new technology we experience less ‘transportation’ (being lost in our reading) and, as a result, become less capable of experiencing empathy.”
These are complicated topics and further obscured by the fact that we all have come to depend on the FANG group (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google) for much of our daily lives. We get news on our phones, text to confirm dates, look at feeds that come on our e-mail and all the rest of it. We are never going back. But how to accept that world without losing the one thing that makes us different from computers, our human empathy, is the challenge. Can we allow a video of a mass shooting in progress, actualized by the shooter, to be circulated and downloaded around the world as if it were equal to some kind of sports event? If that is the case, what have we become?
All of this brought to mind a scene I witnessed just last week in the parking lot of the Southdale Center mall in Edina. The day was raw, sleety and rainy. As I was pulling out of the lot, my eye caught a dark figure on the curb on the other end of the sidewalk. I recognized the elderly man I had seen walking with his wife earlier inside, and for a moment I could not discern what had happened. By the time I had changed course and sped toward him, I realized his wife had fallen and he was trying to aid her. As I arrived at the scene the elderly man desperately motioned me over. Three other people arrived to help at the same time.
The taller of the two men was already grasping the woman under the arms and lifting her up. I helped pick up the walker, which had collapsed, causing her fall, and found a hat for her in my car to defend against the miserable rain. The tall man loaded the couple into his van. We all conferred about where they might have left the car and decided it was in the lot around the corner. They had simply come out the wrong exit, and then her walker had collapsed.
The man with the van drove them around until they found the couple’s car, with the rest of us trying to help search. He loaded them into their own car and I gave him a thumbs-up and resumed my own exit.
No doubt scenes like this are repeated daily and we never hear about them. Artificial intelligence cannot rescue the old woman who has fallen, or comfort her husband by finding the car he had misplaced. As long as we are clear about what human empathy is, we cannot be entirely lost. Recent events notwithstanding.
Judith Koll Healey is a Minneapolis resident and writer.