Do You Want To Watch Tragedies On Tape?

When I heard about the tragic subway death of a young man at the Bedford L stop this weekend, I wondered immediately if surveillance footage of the grisly tragedy had hit YouTube.
Publish date:
March 29, 2012
tragedy, sara benincasa, shooting, trayvon martin, Toulouse, M

This week, Al-Jazeera announced that it will not broadcast tape it has obtained of the murderous rampage in Toulouse, France that left four children and a rabbi dead. The first thing I thought was, "Good. I'm glad Al-Jazeera hasn't succumbed to some sick public desire for sensationalism." My second thought was, "Jesus, why does that desire exist in the first place?"

It's an issue that has come up time and time again recently. I've heard multiple people wondering aloud if there exists surveillance videotape of the Trayvon Martin shooting that took place recently in Sanford, Florida. In most cases, the individuals expressed a desire that the video would show "the truth" about what happened when neighborhood watch employee George Zimmerman shot the unarmed Martin. In fact, there apparently is tape from the scenario -- tape ABC News obtained of Zimmerman after the killing, not of the shooting while it was in progress.

But in at least one instance, I got the feeling the speaker was intensely interested in seeing the actual event for other reasons. What those other reasons were, I can't say, but I'm wondering.

Since the age of television dawned, there have been numerous examples of real, newsworthy violence caught on film. I remember watching footage in school of Jack Ruby murdering Lee Harvey Oswald as Oswald was perp-walked past cameras. This was in middle school, when we also watched the famous Zapruder footage of the Dallas murder of President John F. Kennedy. We saw First Lady Jackie Kennedy reach over the backseat of the convertible, and debated whether she was trying to help a Secret Service officer onto the trunk of the vehicle or reaching for a piece of the President's skull. I think we were 13.

I remember our class's collective disbelief that someone had managed to capture this footage back in "the olden days" -- 1963, thirty years before we sat in a fluorescent-lit classroom to talk about it.

In 1993, of course, we understood that certain horrific events would make it onto the evening news. It had only been six years since Pennsylvania State Treasurer R. Budd Dwyer committed suicide at a televised press conference in Harrisburg. When we were in kindergarten, most of us watched the Challenger explosion as it was happening. And when we were babies, back in 1981, John Hinckley, Jr.'s assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan, the same shooting that left White House Press Secretary James Brady paralyzed, was broadcast on the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather.

Back then, we knew that some events would be captured on video, but I don't think we ever expected that they would be. This was before 9/11, when we watched a national tragedy unfold live on our TV sets. And this was before the immediacy of YouTube, a platform that has narrowed the potential distance between an event and the international broadcast of said event to mere seconds. (Incidentally, you can view many of the events I mention in this article on YouTube. I'm sure you can understand why I'm not linking to them.)

In a far more joyful memory, I remember working as a reporter for MTV News back on Election Night in 2008. I shot footage of crying, cheering Obama revelers at Rockefeller Center with a cameraphone that beamed these images to MTV's website with an immediacy that still shocked me, three years after the advent of the video-sharing site. To this day, when I'm feeling down, I cue up video of Obama supporters reacting to his win. (Another sweet one? New Orleans fans reacting to Tracy Porter's interception in the Super Bowl in 2010. Never fails to make me smile and cry, because I'm a sap for great moments in sports.)

But the moments I'm thinking about today are the dark ones, the terrifying ones, the sick and twisted ones that hold a terrible attraction for many people, even those of us who consider ourselves good people, upright citizens, persons of conscience.

When I heard about the tragic subway death of a young man at the Bedford L stop this weekend, I wondered immediately if surveillance footage of the grisly tragedy had hit YouTube.

Then I wondered if I would watch it.

That's when I started to feel sick.

We talk sometimes about how people seemingly instinctively slow down when driving past a car wreck. I don't think this is the same impulse. When you're stuck in traffic for an extra 45 minutes, it's easy to feel as if you are in some way directly connected to a traffic accident. After all, it's affected your day in a palpable and real way. The curiosity that turns your head towards the crash site seems to me to be understandable and natural rather than morbid. And it's not as if most of us are hoping for blood. The sight often seems to arouse empathy.

"Damn," we'll say. "That's a bad one. I hope everyone's OK." Or "Man, I remember my last fender bender. Glad they're all standing up talking to the cops." I can't say I've ever seen anyone take out a camera or a phone to record the images, but maybe I just haven't looked hard enough.

I can understand the interest in that situation. But what is it in us as humans that creates even the possibility of interest in seeing Trayvon shot, or the subway victim killed, or the schoolchildren and the rabbi murdered? Is it childlike curiosity, a strange kind of innocence? Is it the allure of voyeurism? Is it a desire to somehow feel a part of the incident everyone's talking about, no matter how awful that incident may be? Or is it something else?

My smartest and best self doesn't want to see any of those things on tape. If they're made available, I'm not going to seek them out. But there's a part of me that wonders what I would do if I were hanging out with people who were watching a video of one of these tragedies unfolding. Would I leave the room? Would I leave the house? Would I tell them they were disgusting, that they should stop and think about what they were doing and why they were doing it? Or would I stay and watch?