Is the US Desensitized to Actual Political Violence or Just the Idea of it?

by Ryan Sanford Smith

Over the past several days I’ve found myself revisiting the reports from earlier this year–February 22nd, to be precise, which also happens to be my birthday–that chronicled the gruesome, terribly sad deaths of American reporter Marie Colvin and the young, immensely talented French photojournalist Rémi Ochlik. They were killed while in the Syrian city of Homs where they were covering the current uprisings; the hotel-turned-unofficial-media-camp having been bombarded by pro-government forces. There seems to be ample evidence to suspect, even without the kind of gross volume of cynicism I’m often equipped with, that the targeting of journalists had been intentional, and that the bombardment was even the result of having tracked the satellite phone signals of journalists in the building.

I’ve spent hours pouring back over the photography of Ochlik, who despite his age had become infamous for fearlessly covering violent conflicts from very close quarters. In 2012 he won the World Press Photo contest for his coverage in Libya.

What began to strike me after allowing myself to become engrossed by Ochlik’s work was that I think the zeitgeisty cliché of the desensitized Western viewer/reader is rather inaccurate. Whether lazy, tired discussion of the violence-saturated productions of Hollywood and the video games industry or complaints by those worn down by that they see is a news media obsessed with the terrible and bloody, we’re all more than familiar with this idea. American audiences in particular simply cannot be shocked or unsettled anymore by the terrible incidents of the world, Mortal Kombat and the looped collisions of 9/11 have worn down our ability to empathize and ponder in a genuine way–at least that’s what this kind of rhetoric would have you believe.

Having spent most of my life playing video games and watching movies, including the more violent ones, I can speak to my own jarred experience when touched by encounters of real violence–such as Ochlik’s gritty work–and I don’t think I’m at all alone.

While it’s absolutely true that our media-infused culture has made us increasing less aware of how generally saturated and influenced we are by it all, I think we sell our society short in forgetting that it’s impossible that we haven’t also picked up a certain attunement along the way. I would argue that most of us have developed a sense of what is real and what is staged, and that our perception of ourselves as having become desensitized to violence is only a real phenomenon to a small extent.

The notion isn’t entirely without merit, I simply think it’s a bit off the mark. I do think we’ve lost a certain sense of empathy and sensitivity to the horrors of violence as a general idea–that is to say, a news anchor rattling off body counts day after day quickly loses its unsettling effect. We take it for granted. We know it’s terrible, we say so, and we mean it, but the gasping of the audience has long since faded.

Stop and ask yourself: when was the last time you saw uncensored footage of such a blast? You probably don’t remember. I don’t either. I don’t really remember the last time I saw a dead body on the nightly news. I think on one hand this myth of the desensitized audience remains pervasive even while our actual news coverage remains sanitized into family-friendliness.

I’m not completely ready to argue that CNN should begin giving us camera pans of bloody limbs and dead children every time al-Assad’s forces bombard another village, but I don’t think we’d be worse off for doing so. I think it would shatter this myth overnight and perhaps rekindle a legitimately empathetic reaction to the tragedies going on a world away. We’ve become desensitized to such events because by the time they’re filtered into our news broadcasts they’re simmered down into the white-washed anchorman monotone of objectivity and stock footage of what could be the same small group of angry rebels waving their Kalashnikovs in the air. The fact that such footage would be terribly hard to watch only proves the necessity of airing it. We can’t expect our children or even ourselves to maintain a realistic perception of the monstrosities going on around the world of the monstrous part of it well gone by the time it hits our screens. If we don’t feel the horror of what is happening, how can we ever truly work against it?

This is why the work of relentlessly brave correspondents is so important, and the tragedy of February 22nd is a grim reminder of the ends they must so often pursue in order to try to keep our perspectives informed and useful. What are they working for if the reality of what they see and report is so often almost entirely lost on us? We aren’t overwhelmed and acclimated to violence, we’re starved for its true nature.

Remi Ochlik’s official website (with several stunning galleries of work) can be found here.

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