Reading Between the (Head)Lines

A different take on today's top stories

Picture Of Death

Do we now see the real world through a lens like it's a TV show?

DOOMED "Pushed on the subway track, this man is about to die."

This was the front page headline which greeted readers of the December 4, 2012 issue of the New York Post. Recovering from one storm, New York now has another storm -- a heated, ethical debate -- brewing. The public is expressing both outrage and support to the photographer who took the picture of Ki-Suk Han, 58, moments before he was pushed onto the subway tracks into the path of an oncoming train. 

This is not to question the motive of the man who pushed the victim. Authorities have him in custody and he will face justice soon enough. No, let's look into the motive and mindset of not only the photographer, but of us -- you and me -- in the year 2012.

What does this say about our society when we see a man pushed in front of a train and instead of having a knee jerk reaction to save him, we instead grab our camera to get a picture?

After Han was pushed, he had approximately 22 seconds before impact. Twenty two seconds is forever in a case like this. It’s enough time to WALK 20 yards and still have 10 seconds to lean over and help. What makes this so emotional was that Han was completely helpless, vulnerable and unaided; just one helping hand could have saved his life. 

The freelance photographer, R. Umar Abbasi, who was paid for the photograph, insists he wasn't trying to get "the shot," but rather was trying to use his camera flash to alert the subway motorman. And yet, the picture was perfectly framed, in focus and balanced. This ridiculous excuse is almost as bad as the photo itself.

There were 18 other bystanders standing on the platform, and not one offered assistance. Some witnesses say Han was struggling repeatedly to pull himself up off the tracks, and just a little help could have done it, but still no one helped. Patrick Gomez, a bystander, said "People who were on the platform could have pulled him up but they didn't have the courage. They just didn't react like that”. He admits that he, also, did nothing to help.

After the body was pulled up after impact, while a doctor and another were trying to resuscitate Han, bystanders were snapping pictures and taking videos of the body, no doubt to share with friends and post on Facebook, Twitter or YouTube.

Apparently our society is now composed only of narcissistic spectators. Everything is there soley for our enjoyment -- to view and be entertained by any means necessary. Is this real life viewing spectacle that much different than Roman Gladiators fighting to the death with crowds looking on? 

How to explain this type of behavior and mindset? First, our narcissistic society which has been created and fed by Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. These social media avenues say "Hey! Look at me, me, me! Look at what I have! I can entertain you! Follow me! Friend me! Want to subscribe to my channel?"

And it’s the violence which is being glorified daily through today's music, television, movies, Internet, video games, and more. The violence is in our face every day no matter where we turn. How could we not become numb and desensitized?

Also, we’re clearly becoming meaner as a society. As I discuss in a blog on bullying, a recent study finds that empathy for the pain and suffering of others is down over 40% for college kids who graduated after the year 2000. If you don’t have empathy, then why would you care to help anyone but yourself?

Modern Warfare 2

Finally, we are starting to view our world -- our reality -- like we view a TV program. Like the action is somehow removed from us and is not real. We are so accustomed to being mindlessly entertained, that a real life and death struggle before our eyes is of interest as long as we don’t have to get involved or emotionally connect.

Han did not have the option to press pause or rewind- it was real life for him. He had a good 22 seconds to get out from in front of that train, but he could not do it alone. Unfortunately, no one stepped up to the plate to help, but they did help themselves to pictures and videos to show off as bragging rights and proof that they were really there. I wonder how many of the eyewitnesses were even slightly traumatized later by what they saw? I wonder if they were secretly thrilled to witness a real life tragedy? I wonder what this says about the world we live in?

Dale Archer, M.D., is a clinical psychiatrist and author of The New York Times bestseller, Better Than Normal: How What Makes You Different Can Make You Exceptional.

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