In December 2011 a Twilight Zone-like miniseries out of the UK called Black Mirror premiered. In the first episode a man was forced, through public will, to violate himself on live television.
The gross act, as well as the circumstances surrounding it could have happened in real life, but are not likely events. The horrifying reality of the episode was in the reaction of the fictional public. For over an hour they watched unflinchingly, judgementally, amused by this man’s torture.
I know for a fact that this is reality. I’ve seen it for myself.
Last week police in Daveytown, South Africa strapped Mido Macia’s hands to the back of their van in a crowded street and dragged him until he was dead.
As we’ve come to expect, the incident was caught on video by several camera phones. Subsequently, it was broadcast worldwide, first on video sharing sites and then network television.
On the weekend I took a break from the cold to go inside and have a coffee at a local chain restaurant. There, on a television, a Canadian news network was broadcasting one of those videos in its entirety.
I was horrified. I hadn’t heard the story yet, and was reading the text at the bottom of the screen as I saw the man, his arms stretched over his head against the van’s bumper. Because it was only a glance, I had no warning. I got up to leave, thinking I’d saved myself from the unnecessary anguish of seeing his last moments. Instead, I saw something much worse.
When I stood to get my coat, my back was toward the television and I was facing the row of tables in front of it. Each table was full. Each patron was staring unflinchingly at the television.
And, as they chewed their fast food meals, each face had a passive smile on it. These people were watching a man’s terrible last moments, and they may as well have been watching Saturday morning cartoons.
Once upon a time, decades ago, when television news broadcasts were starting to go global and figuring out how to be our window to the whole world, there was a lot of controversy over the use of images of dying children and soldiers. There were discussions about it. Would this footage help any cause? Or would it just desensitize us?
Today everything that happens in this world can be broadcast within minutes. Through the blurry, gonzo-style film footage that is modern technology, we see every gory detail before it has the chance to pass the eyes of anyone who has taken a course in the ethics of journalism.
And so the networks must report it. What choice do they have? Follow the masses or risk becoming irrelevant.
Journalists are seen as vultures and so we are, picking at the remains of YouTube videos because they’ve already been seen 500 thousand times.
But the question of desensitization has become clear, at least to me. Not one of those eyes I scanned showed anger. Not one face twisted in disgust. Not one person questioned why the police in any country, charged with protecting the people, could do such a thing in public. No one stood up and shouted, “Put down the damn camera and stop them!”
Black Mirror’s creators chose to reference the Twilight Zone as an influence. That series was about going beyond the imagination and into alternate realities. But this reality is ours.
As Rod Sterling used to say, “You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance… you’ve just crossed over into the Twilight Zone.”