I was four or five when I first saw a dead person. It was my maternal grandfather. He had died from cancer and was being laid to rest. At the viewing, I remember seeing him and not quite realizing that he was dead. I was just a kid, after all. Death was an abstract concept to me. In fact, death would not become a real thing until a few years later when a kid who lived across the street from me — and with whom I and the neighborhood kids played all the time — was run over by a drunk driver. He was there one day, then he was gone.
It wouldn’t be until I was a teenager that I saw someone die for the first time. It wasn’t in person, though. My cousins giddily borrowed a VHS tape copy of a movie called “Faces of Death.” The video appeared to show people dying from all sorts of different things. Some people were shot. Others were decapitated by broadswords in Saudi Arabia. (Though there is some evidence that some of these deaths were fake.) In one video, a man is shot point blank in the chest by a soldier during a protest. He screams “ay, ay, ay, ay, ay” and falls to the ground. The person recording focuses on the man’s face as he spits out blood and slowly passes away.
That one scene stayed in my head more because of the reaction of my cousins than because of how gruesome it was. See, my paternal grandfather once took me to the local slaughterhouse and showed me how horses, cows and pigs were killed. He showed me where the meat I ate came from, and how he earned a living that made life comfortable for everyone in the family. So I was okay with blood and guts. I still am, especially now that I’ve worked so long in healthcare.
The reason why that scene stayed in my head was because of my cousins’ reactions to it. They laughed. They repeated the “ay, ay, ay, ay, ay” (five times “ay”) as they mimicked how the man died, then they would laugh again. For years after watching that, if one of them got hurt in the slightest way, they would scream like the man did, grab their chest, and laugh again. I remember being very sad at their reaction, thinking to myself how sad the family of the man would be if they saw my cousins acting that way, and how sad those same family memebers would be in watching the video.
I wouldn’t see someone die live and in person until I started working at the hospital as a lab tech. I was working overnights and alone in the lab. So it was up to me to respond to codes blue in the emergency room and elsewhere in the hospital. The first person I saw die was a man in his 80s who died of a heart attack. There was a clear line across his torso separating white skin from blue. (His lower body wasn’t perfusing well, apparently.) Just a few minutes earlier, as he was in the throes of the heart attack, he had reached out to the tech setting up his IV line and said, “You gotta help me, doc!” He would die a few minutes later, despite everything that was tried to keep his heart going. A few minutes after that, he was placed in a resting position, and most of the tubes that were placed in him were taken out. His family was then allowed into the room to say goodbye.
The following morning, I included in my report to the next shift that there was a code blue I responded to, but I didn’t give many details. Even as I write about it today, I’m not very comfortable with giving you the generalities of it. That man faced his last moments among strangers, and he seemed very scared of it all… As most of us would be.
This morning, a man opened fire on a reporter, a cameraman, and a person being interviewed. The reporter and cameraman were killed. The shooter recorded the shooting and posted the video to his social media accounts. What’s worse, the crew was live on morning television when the man opened fire. So viewers at 6:30am, or so, saw it all develop live on television. Not to be outdone, just about every media outlet decided that it was necessary to publish the video taken by the dying cameraman’s camera.
Later in the morning, as the shooter’s identity was discovered, and so were the videos he posted online, many media outlets decided to post that video. Online, a lot of my social media contacts were also sharing hyperlinks to the video, or stills from the video. Like that time with my cousins, it made me sad that people were so eager to see this horrible act with their own eyes. The murderer can be explained. He had issues with how he was treated by the staff at the television news station, and he snapped and killed those two employees of the station. What I can’t explain is why friends of mine who I love and care for — like my young cousins — can now, as adults, take any kind of satisfaction in watching the videos.
I guess it’s a lot about curiosity. After all, most of my friends are not living in war-torn places where violence is everyday. They probably have never seen someone die right in front of them. So they may be curious about people dying and click on the link that takes them to a website hosting the video. (In this case it’s probably a news site. In so many other cases, sites that cover the darkest of dark things on the net.) It may be that same curiosity that draws us boys to look at naked pictures of girls. It’s something unknown to us and considered taboo. And so we click, and we end up changing.
I’m not an ethicist. I took a couple of courses on ethics here and there throughout my academic career, but I’m not as well-versed in ethics as people who study ethics for a living are. So I’ll leave it up to them to opine on the ethics of posting those videos online. On the one hand, the videos further the story or outright tell it. On the other, posting the videos may further victimize the friends and loved ones of the victims themselves. Or they can coax other criminals to think that they too will gain notoriety by doing something similar.
Again, that’s all up for people more educated than me to definitively discuss.
Nevertheless, I will offer to you the same advice that I gave others on social media today. If you have the opportunity to see these kinds of videos, don’t. Don’t do it. It’s not worth it to put into your mind images of other people dying, images that can change you on such a level that you might not come out well on the other side. If you happen to have seen these images and feel troubled, please speak to someone about your feelings, hopefully someone who can help you deal with them to minimize the damage.
Death is, or should be, an intimate process that we all will go through some day. The overwhelming majority of us will go through it nonviolently, and hopefully in our sleep and/or surrounded by loved ones. It should be our moment and ours alone, something not to be shared with the world because, frankly, the world is already pretty messed up as it is. Filling minds with images of death doesn’t further us as society. It sets us back, even if there is some sort of “need” for society to see what is going on because of our failings as a species.
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
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