Went to the movies the other night. Watched the previews for coming attractions. The first one began with a huge, fiery explosion. Bodies flying. Melting flesh. The next one had people killing themselves on purpose — medical students, I think. Screams. More bodies. The next one was bullets and more bullets. Blood. Guts. Action-adventure, they call it.
So now I know what to look forward to at the movies: Death. More death. As pastimes go in America, watching death is as common as eating out. We gather in darkened theaters to watch it. We sit in living rooms and watch it with our kids. We assign it no age limit. Studies show the most popular videos with teenagers are slasher jobs, where, every few minutes, heads get chopped off, hearts get ripped out and eyeballs pop like thermometers from turkeys.
Not only does death sell — or rent — it even makes for good advertising. In Friday’s newspaper, the ad for the film “Die Hard 2,” the blockbuster success of the summer, depicts silhouetted bodies shooting into the sky from an explosion. They look dead, or at least on their way. The caption reads
“Become A Frequent Flyer! Die Harder. See It Again!” This, in case you missed the 300 or so folks who got killed the first time around.
Maybe none of this bothers you. It should. Because what happens when you watch so much death is that it loses its impact, it ceases to shock. It numbs you. The result is this: For many Americans, death is no big deal. It’s not our problem, right?
Now, I am not talking about when death visits your loved ones. That still hits like a sledgehammer. And yet, as soon as the tragedy is one step removed, many of us lose any trace of empathy.
I heard this story from a Realtor friend, a lovely, middle- aged woman, who lost her sister a few weeks ago to a heart attack. It happened quite suddenly, and this woman had to break the news to her sister’s family, including her sister’s son, who was on vacation with his girlfriend.
Hours passed. He couldn’t be found. His mother was dead, and he had no idea. In her grief, the Realtor tried to find the girlfriend’s phone number through information. It was listed, but unpublished. She pleaded with the operator. “Can’t you give it to me? This is very important. Someone has died.”
“I can’t help you,” the operator said.
“Well, is there any way you could call the girl then and tell her this is an emergency?”
“I said I can’t help you.”
“Please. This is important.”
“My, aren’t we pushy?”
“There’s been a death in the family.”
“Lady, your death is not my problem.”
And he hung up. It’s a revolting story. And yet, does it really surprise you? For the operator, the death of this woman was as distant as a foreign country on a map. He thought nothing about her children, about the love and warmth they would no longer share. Heck, in his mind, she probably didn’t even go in dramatic fashion. She wasn’t blown up in a plane or riddled with bullets by terrorists. She just died. “Your death is not my problem.”
You wonder how many movies he has seen. We’ve lost our compassion
Obviously, not everyone is this insensitive. But I think this illustrates a disturbing trend in our country. In some cultures — usually the ones without television — death remains a powerful concept. Villages mourn when a member is lost. The grief is shared by everyone. The American Indians used to shoot arrows into the sky to chase evil spirits from the corpse. The Chinese used to burn paper money so that the deceased would have funds in the next world. These rituals were understood. Death — and its significance — was taught from an early age.
Now we teach very little. We have death everywhere. On the evening news. On the front pages. This week, the nation of Kuwait was invaded by Iraq, yet you heard very little about the people killed. Most of the talk was about oil, and who would control it.
Meanwhile, our movie theaters — where we supposedly go to escape the real
world — are making people famous for simulating mass executions. Schwarzenegger. Stallone. Chuck Norris. Could you even count how many they’ve killed on the screen?
I know people are smart enough to know the difference. I know watching Charles Bronson shoot 50 men doesn’t necessarily make you do the same. But all the carnage does do something: It robs us, bit by bit, of our horror, our outrage, until eventually we become inured to death, particularly the death of strangers. We surrender our compassion. We stop feeling for those who really suffer.
And that is tragic. Michelangelo once said, “No thought exists in me which death has not carved with his chisel.” Today it’s not a chisel, it’s an ice pick or a machine gun. And nobody thinks much about it anymore.