Trigger warning: This column contains graphic descriptions of violence.
This summer, I saw a woman get shot. Everyone said it was a man. I maintain it was a woman. I saw her and a man struggling, and I saw her collapse to the floor, followed by three motorcycles that piled on top of her minuscule body while the few people there just watched and did nothing. I am no one to judge. I heard the subsequent gunshots and ran into the closest restaurant.
People pretended to be awestruck, hurt, with their hands cradling their mouths in sad disbelief, but they continued to stand there because their morbidity exceeded what they’d openly avow. There’s something confounding about death: we’re scared of it and yet at the same time we’re oddly drawn to it. It has so much weight when it graces someone we love. When it befalls those foreign to our social or family spheres, we shrug it off as a dismal side-effect of life.
There are many blurred lines in our perspectives on death. Hollywood blankets us in images of bloody flesh as part of a heroic and enthralling portrayal of the military or private-combatant complex. Killing suddenly becomes mindless and systematized. Death suddenly becomes an expected outcome. And as it is with everything that is expected, death becomes normal, familiar. Then comes the daily news coverage that mourns the dozens of deaths in a far-off part of the world that you may have no ties to. The first time you hear it, it shocks you. The second time you cringe a bit less. By the tenth time, the deaths become background noise, like commercials you could recite in your sleep, so repeatedly have they assaulted you. You’ve grown numb to them, desensitized, because it’s all you really ever see.
“But those are movies,” you say, “Or events that are occurring miles away. Surely, I would be more emotionally engaged if they were happening before me.” Really? I saw a woman get shot. Some hours later, a two-sentence post in the newspaper acknowledged her death. The image of her blood pooling on the concrete plagued my mind for most of the day. Maybe three days. Barely. Not but four days in and that image seemed to dissipate from my mind. I think that in other circumstances, in a life where we weren’t always bombarded by such a normalized and routinized vision of death, it would have affected me more. But it did not. And so when we say we fear death, we can’t say we fear death itself. We fear a certain death, a death that touches upon circumstances we know, people we cherish, times we live in. When it comes to people we do not know, we are affected only minimally. When it comes to people we are taught to despise, or that our country has led us to believe are evil-incarnate, we crave it. Death is not just one black-and-white concept that we can compartmentalize. Depending on the circumstances, we perceive it in different ways.