Invading the Final Moments of Life

When I saw the picture in the July 13 issue of Newsweek of Neda Soltani, the 16-year-old Iranian girl who was killed by a sniper in Tehran, I was going to write an article about how the media devotes so much more time to people considered “beautiful.” While I still believe that is true and fodder for a future article, I cannot write it now.

I cannot write it because now I have seen the video of her death. The video changes everything.

A video was shot of this young girl dying in the street, blood cascading out of her eyes and mouth. The images were so graphic, so devastating, so incredibly and deeply tragic. The father’s cries of anguish were traumatic and gut-wrenching. Chills coursed through my spine.

Yet, who am I to watch this macabre scene? Who I am to witness such a private and deeply personal moment? Who am I to see a video that never should have been shot and definitely should not have been plastered all over YouTube and Facebook for the entire world to see?

We are invading people’s lives. Cameras are so ubiquitous that we consider it normal now to see every moment of people’s lives, including their moment of death. Who are we to see these things? Why should we?

According to an article in the June 22 issue of the New York Daily News, the video was posted to Facebook by an Iranian living in Holland. He said he had received the video from a doctor in Tehran who had tried to help the girl. (1)

Did Neda’s family have any say in this? Did they want their daughter to become the face of a cause? Did they want their daughter’s final moments displayed on computer screens all over the world?

And, what is up with this alleged doctor? How was it possible for him to continue filming the video while “helping” her? What kind of help did he provide exactly as she took her last few breaths?

In just a matter of hours after the video was posted, Neda became a martyr to millions throughout the world. People rallied in major American and Iranian cities, crying out for justice. The world should condemn this atrocity, but the world did not have to see it so callously and graphically displayed. The world should not have seen the video of Neda’s death without the permission of her family.

As I read the article about Neda, I could not help but think of an article I read in the April 25 issue of Newsweek about Nikki Catsouras, an 18-year-old Orange County, Calif., girl, who was killed in a catastrophic car accident on Halloween, 2006. Her parents have been fighting a losing battle ever since the accident to have nine graphic photographs of their daughter’s dead body removed from the Internet. (2)

The photographs were taken by two highway patrolmen at the scene. These personal, graphic and grizzly pictures should never have made it on the web.

I’ll never forget a story my colleague, Gene Morris, told me when we used to work together at The Miami County Republic. I mentioned how all these gawkers were at the scene of a serious car accident, getting in the way of the emergency crews.

He said he was at the scene of a fatal crash and he watched a father walk his young son (Gene guessed he was six or seven) up as close as he could to see. When an emergency crew person told the man to get back, Gene heard him reply, “I just wanted my son to see what death looks like.” How disturbing is that?

When we see these graphic images of dead and dying people, we are being just like that father. We are invading someone else’s life. We become like viewers of the freak show of death.

I understand the urge to slow down at an accident. I understand the urge to want to see. Believe me, I do. I was reporter, so I understand the urge intensely. I want to know. I also understand the feeling of “there, but for the grace of God, go I” that we all get when we see a fatal event.

But, I also will never shake the memory of the first fatal accident I covered years ago. I will never forget it. I took the pictures of the twisted hunk of metal that used to be a car, thinking there was no one in it. It was so mangled, you could not tell. I went and stood by the car and lit a cigarette, a habit I had at the time.

It is only then, as I lit my cigarette, that I noticed the dress hanging out of the bottom of the driver’s door. My stomach heaved and bile surged into my throat. I saw the baby seats in the back of the car. I saw the videos and books for little children and I knew. I knew this was their mother right there. I knew her lifeless body was just three feet away from me.

I turned and rushed away. I never looked back. I never want to again.

 

(1) http://www.nydailynews.com/news/us_world/2009/06/21/2009-06-21_neda_young_girl_killed_in_iran.html (this is the news article…I advise against watching the video).

(2) http://www.newsweek.com/id/195073

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12 responses to “Invading the Final Moments of Life

  1. Pretty soon we’ll see death row inmates on TV. The major networks will vie for rights to show the first electrocution on TV.

    • Vantage Point Productions

      Tim,

      I think they made a TV movie depicting just such an event, didn’t they? I’m not sure, but I thought they did.

      VP

  2. Georgia Auckly

    I agree that we have “self-esteemed” our kids to a point of obnoxiousness!

    • Vantage Point Productions

      Georgia,

      That is so true. We are building them a house of self-esteem, but are forgetting to have them pour a foundation of hard work, perseverance, determination and sheer grit. They are building their houses on sand because of us!

      Thanks for your comments. Sorry I could not comment sooner. I was away on vacation.

      VP

  3. walter harrison

    I do not believe in censorship; however, I do believe in responsibility. I truely believe that there are times when the media has a responsibility not to report certain things. When we had domestic terrorism, specificly the Oklahoma bombing, the news not only reported how it was blown up, but how they got their ideas such as the turner diaries, and the anacharst cook book- they should have said this how they blew up the building, because they told people how anyway. When school shootings were becoming wide spread the media covered it for months at a time. I still have to wonder how prevalent and how much it would have spread had the media not went on and on about it. My personnal opinion having witnessed several deaths including family members is that it is not important how they died, but how they lived, how we remember for who they were. I am Irish, and part of being Irish is being stoic, but part of being alive is letting go. It makes it that much harder for everyone, even those that were not there to let go when we are reminded of the tragedy.

    • Vantage Point Productions

      Walter,

      You present some extremely valid points. I, too, am always flabbergasted by how the media spells everything out. If I remember correctly, Newsweek provided detailed graphics of how exactly to build a truck bomb after Oklahoma City. I remember thinking how completely crazy that was.

      As a member of the media, I often think we are the instigators and rabble-rousers. We are the ones who keep it going and make it worse. That was a definite bonus of working for community newspapers. There just has to be a better way.

      Thanks again for your comments. Sorry I could not reply sooner. I was away on vacation.

      VP

  4. I worry about the human race. Why would anyone put a video of someones horrifying death on YouTube? Its like we are drawn to watching deaths, trying to figure out what happens when we die, and after. Our own cruel nature, because each and every one of us has it, causes us to be drawn to death. On the news, you hardly ever see something about the happiness, the good going on. But you always see things about deaths. Why must we watch the news and always see that this person died, and when this person died, and see how horrific it was. Do we truly need to know?

    When famous people die, we have to know every single aspect of their death. Just because they are well known, we dont have to intrude on every bit of their life. We heard the other day that Billy Mays died, and the next day we find out why. Do we have to know why he died? Does it really matter how he died? It’s not the most important thing. Instead of hearing the words of the grieving family on how much they will miss him, we hear the words of someone who most likely didnt know him, someone who was sent to find out why and how he died. Its a way of looking at death that I find cruel. Why do we have to know the cause of death, but not the way the family feels, and how much they will miss that person?

    When Michael Jackson died, all we hear is speculation about drugs and other ways he might have died. Does it matter how he died? He was an influental person in his time. Shouldnt we hear the words of his fans and followers on how he changed the nation, and the words of his family on how he will be missed? But no. We hear the words of a docter of his who was sued for some various reason, telling us how Michael died. Its impersonal! Why do we need to hear the cold voice of a docter telling us how someone died, instead of the caring voice of family, friends, and followers on how much Michael influenced and changed them?

    If a regular person like you or me died today, there would be a small sound bite about it. Like “Selby Marksbury died today of something or other” and then they would move on. So do the regular people not mean as much? Either way, do we even need to know of every single death in the planet?

    Why do we have to see how someone dies? Why do we have to know every detail? Does it matter more how someone died, instead of what that person stood for and how that person helped someones life? I would rather know what that persons name was, and what they died standing for, and what they were like, instead of the cold impersonal statement that they died of some disease, or some cruel attack.

    Death is a big part of life. But that doesnt mean we must watch it and hear about it constantly! It’s too much for anyone to take. It’s terribly cruel.

    Mr. VanPelt, I am glad I got you as a teacher, because you didnt just teach me about English. You taught me about how things work, and that we should let our feelings out, and be creative, and allow people to know how we feel and what we stand for. Thank you, Mr. VanPelt.

    • Vantage Point Productions

      Selby,

      Thank you so much for your insightful comments. I completely agree that the media is obsessed with the negative. I sometimes cannot watch the nightly news due to the violence and sadness displayed there.

      As a member of the media, I do have to say, however, that it is not entirely the media’s fault. They cover what attracts an audience. Sadly, as you note in your comments, crowds are drawn to death. I do not foresee that changing any time soon.

      Your last paragraph truly brought a tear to my eye. There is no greater compliment I could ever get than the one you just gave me. Thank you so much Selby for making my year!

      Take care. Sorry it took me so long to respond. I was away on vacation.

      VP

  5. Thank you for sharing such frank thoughts about this issue. I had learned about the Catsouras episode via a friend who used it to make a point to his own teenage son who is about to get his driver’s license. I read Miles’ comment and could tell you that he is right on about his comment “Perhaps he’s seen a lot of death, and expects his child to have to, and wanted to start with someone who wasn’t a close friend or family member” because my friend’s brother died in a horrific car accident, and he fears about the fate of his own son who is preparing to drive.

    I think you have said it well though; our society definitely invades the personal lives (and deaths) of others. It’s not just an internet problem either; our media does it as well! I can’t even begin to count the number of body bags I’ve seen roll across the screen after a celebrity death or a horrible accident. Things will not change until our media steps up and acts mature–and sadly it may take the government to make that happen. :-\

    Thanks again for voicing out about this subject!

    • Vantage Point Productions

      Nikki,

      I agree. The media sells death. The Republic was a community newspaper. We did not photograph bodies. That was why I was so surprised to discover the mother was in the car. I had taken all these pictures and did not even know it.

      Take care, Nikki. Thanks for reading and commenting. Spread the word about Vantage Point, if you would not mind.

      VP

  6. This is a tough one for me.

    In many cultures around the globe, death is still an everyday occurrence for much of the population. Certainly it’s an inevitable part of life.

    On the one had, “western civilization” has become insulated and isolated from reality, and we don’t want unpleasantness impinging on our daily lives. I can’t judge the father at the wreck because I don’t know what he’s had to face, what he expects his child to have to face in the near future. Perhaps he’s simply macabre. Perhaps he’s seen a lot of death, and expects his child to have to, and wanted to start with someone who wasn’t a close friend or family member. Perhaps he just learned his daughter is dying of cancer, and is in shock. Who knows?

    On the other hand, despite the fact that more and more people not only wear their emotions on their sleeves (or outright slap people upside the head with them), I think a lot of us are jaded and emotionless, and it takes something shocking to get through.

    Bringing it back to Neda’s father, the few Iranians I have known have been fairly private individuals. They would certainly not have wanted their loved one’s last moment broadcast, or their grief broadcast. At the same time they were somewhat fatalistic, and would have likely done nothing about it, lest they draw more attention to themselves. I will not pretend to know how Neda’s father felt about this.

    Finally, I can see where someone who felt trapped in an apparently futile revolution in an increasingly scary dictatorship (regardless of what any of us believe, this is what the people revolting in Iran thought) would do something like this to get their plight out to the world in hopes of obtaining help. And I can’t judge, or blame, them for that, either.

    It’s disturbing, and it’s a hard issue, and I’m glad you brought it up because we all need to consider and discuss these issues. I’m sad you *have* to bring it up, Why are no mainstream editorial writers and commentators starting just this dialog? But that’s another rant for another day.

    • Vantage Point Productions

      Miles,

      Thank you so much for reading my column and expressing your opinion. It is always enlightening to read what you have to say! Spread the word about Vantage Point, if you would not mind. Take care.

      VP

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