This has been stewing in my mind for a couple of days, so you’ll have to bear with me.
The whole world is aware of the bombings that took place two days ago at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Thanks to this age of social media, in which everyone has a phone and every phone has a camera, we knew within minutes what happened. It was like a flood: the first few confusing mentions, then more and more until everyone from national TV to Twitter to the street corner were talking about it, and mostly nothing else, on Monday.
And with it came the photos. Raw, in-the-moment photos. Images normally reserved for movies and special effects were real and vivid and so bright and clear.
And I decided not to look.
As humans, we can’t help but watch sometimes. Horrific things unfold and we can’t tear our eyes away, we can’t seem to stop the “rubberneck” effect. In a time when we have unlimited access to images like those coming from Boston, it’s hard to not look. It’s also hard to know when you’re going to see something that will burn itself into your mind for the rest of your life.
One of the strange things about our instantaneous news is how we have shifted from wanting to know to actually feeling that we need to know what’s happening. We are almost like a hive-mind, reaching out, making sure that every single person knows something bad is happening somewhere. And then we sit and obsess over it, either by planting ourselves in front of the television, or the computer, or the Twitter feed on a phone, and we watch for every update, for every theory, for every new shocking tidbit.
Don’t get me wrong on this. It is important to know what happened. It is vital that we find out who or what is responsible for this terrible act, that we bring justice to them, and that we make every effort to stop this from happening again.
But we seem to have developed an idea that it is somehow our civic, or even our moral duty to watch these things as they unfold. Minute by minute, we stare at the continued lack of information, the increased flood of sickening images, as if somehow by letting our lives stop it will change things.
The people running toward the explosions to help, those carrying away the strangers to get aid, those running toward hospitals to give blood, they are all heroes, all showing the capacity of humanity for good in the face of evil.
But in the midst of all of that, for those of us hundreds or thousands of miles away, those of us who are removed, there wasn’t anything we could do. I think that feeling of helplessness is what draws us to stop and do nothing but watch, to put ourselves into the situation as if somehow by participating in the communal watching we can help.
And in the midst of it, hundreds of individuals (and then news agencies) have to make editorial decisions about what we as a community will watch.
The images coming out of Boston were horrific. They were sickening and shocking and most of all real. They were unedited snapshots (and videos) of real time disaster and, especially at first, none of them were posted or shared with any warning.
No matter how much we feel it is important to know in the moment, it is important to remember that we are not obligated to look. We just aren’t. There are things that can’t be unseen, and there are people who do not need to see the blood to understand the horror of it.
And while there were amazing, helpful things that came from social media that day (such as helplines getting passed quickly and Google’s person finder spreadsheet), there was also potential for people to see their loved one, lying on the street, and to find out that way what happened, or for a child to suddenly find themselves facing something that will induce nightmares for years to come.
Why does this matter?
I read an op-ed that pointed out that these bombs were meant to be seen. They were left at a place conspicuously crowded and exceedingly photographed. The finish line itself is covered with cameras to record winners, record runs, you name it. The person or group responsible wanted us to see and wanted us to be horrified.
And so I chose not to look.
I am angry, yes, and I am horrified that this happened and by the idea that such a thing could happen anywhere at any time. But I also know that seeing those images would do me more harm than good. It was hard to break the mental cycle, that need to read every article, to know moment by moment the reactions on the ground, but I had to pull myself away, to give myself that sense of separation, the wait-and-see to find out what really happened instead of the rumor and fear-mongering and hearsay.
I am still avoiding the pictures and videos. I will continue to do so. They don’t deserve the power we give them. Instead I will continue to pray for the victims, and remember Romans 12:21.