I watch people die
So do you, but I also watch real deaths
In an episode of the podcast Hardcore History called Painfotainment , host Dan Carlin poses the question, is it natural for humans to be amused by the suffering of others and today we suppress that, or are we naturally empathic and the problem is that civilization distorts us?
He looks at the Roman era of gladiatorial arenas, which didn't just have combat, but all manner of watching people die in inventive ways for the entertainment of a crowd that seemed willing to eat it up. Was Roman civilization providing an honest outlet for deeper animalistic urges, or artificially creating a kind of peer pressure to conform to state sanctioned violence against undesirables? He also looked at other times and places, like how executions and torture were handled through the middle ages, where displays of sadism were created ostensibly as warnings to keep people inline, but consumed by those in attendance in a large part simply as a spectacle.
In terms of being full of fascinating tidbits of information about how executions have been handled in European history, it's a great episode. But in terms of the overall thesis, Carlin lost me early on, because of his strangely restrained description of modern day access to scenes of executions. He described how you could go onto YouTube and find old videos of Nazi prisoners being executed by allied forces, as if this was an example of how a modern human could still potentially see disturbing content.
That's it? That's the worst thing he can think of?
I suspect he held back from offering more robust examples because maybe he didn't want to be seen as endorsing them. Or maybe he is genuinely unaware of what's out there, though I doubt that. Or maybe there is some other reason. But it was surprising to me that he didn't bring up the fact that you're one Google search away from high definition videos of ISIS members lighting people on fire or running them over with tanks, shakey mobile phone videos of Mexican cartels flaying people alive, grainy security camera footage Brazilian hit men in flip flops shooting people in the back of the head as they get out of their car, and on and on and on. And that's just if you constrain yourself to deliberate executions. If you also include videos of accidental deaths, your selection of death porn goes way, way up. Industrial machinery handled without respect, animal attacks, traffic accidents, and more.
Millions of people watch these videos, they're shared over countless forums and video sharing sites, to people in every language and country. I'm one of those people who watch them, on Reddit, in a forum called Watch People Die .
To be clear, you watch people die all the time, we all do. But somehow there's a line crossed when it's for real. Just the other day, I was sitting in a cafe on a bright, sunny, cheery day, and they had a video screen on one wall showing the movie Logan . While people casually sipped their lattes, the hero of the movie routinely murdered people by using his metal claws to spike them right in the face and out the back of their head. Putting aside all the questions within the story's narrative about whether or not these were ethical acts of justifiable murder in pursuit of a greater cause, isn't it kind of fucked up that relentless spectacular killing doesn't make anyone at a coffee shop even notice?
There are big questions to be had about whether or not drawing a line between fictional displays of brutal murder and seeing the real thing has any differentiating qualities, and what that says about us as a people and a society. I mean, we think Romans were pretty brutal for watching people die in an arena, but they never had the benefit of the visuals of murder amplified with special effects, getting up close and sensational in ways that would astound them. But that's a discussion that would be its own book. I'm going to skip over that discussion, and start with the axiom that, for whatever reason, I can go around telling people I watched a horror movie last night in which a dozen teenage girls were executed in sexploitive fashion, and that just makes me a movie goer. But, to confess that I watch videos of real humans dying has to be done in an a setting with more care, like an over analytical blog post, just between you and me.
Why do I do it? It's probably not just one reason tied up in a tidy little bow. Mostly I'm kind of driven to be reminded of the fragility of life. Of my life. The videos that shake me the most are the ones that have nothing to do with executions or anything like that, because those are harder to identify with. To get from where I am now to the point where some kind of large scale criminal or terrorist organization was mad enough at me to want to end my life in a fashion worthy of a propaganda video would consist of a long string of mostly improbable events too remote to consider seriously. But when someone is just walking down the street and fate comes out of nowhere, that gives me perspective.
I saw one recently where a body builder was doing a backflip, probably a move he had done countless times before with no problem, but this time his head hit the floor halfway through, and that was it. There was another where a child is being overly excited while running around his mother, and even though she does everything to stop him, he thinks it's all a game, he evades her, and runs straight into traffic. In another, a car is going down a road, and a brick or a tire falls off a truck in the opposite lane and in a one in a million shot goes right through the windshield and kills the passenger. You can't even see the actual death, you just hear the anguish of everyone else in the car. It's so random, and so tragic, and for some reason I want to confront that fear of how my life could be gone before I even know it. Or maybe I'm more afraid of being one of the people left behind. Maybe it reminds me to value the moments I have?
Sometimes I look at the crazy execution videos, though I tend to skim and glance. I don't have any need to revel in the gore, but there's something about the way that these real life videos look strangely fake that I feel desensitizes me, making me more resilient to the real world. In the movies, when someone dies, they go out in one of three ways. One is with fantastical cinematography, where the blood spatters dramatically and the impact of their death is conveyed by artistic display. Another way is the type where someone, usually an inconsequential minion like a Storm Trooper, gets shot once and drops to the floor like a sack of wet cement, no agony, no lingering. The third way is the long drawn out beautiful death, where someone, usually a hero, hangs on just enough to say those last few important words before they peacefully close their eyes and the person holding them looks up to the heavens and cries, "Nooooo!!"
All these ways of dying have a kind of mercy to them, and, if there's anything amoral about the depiction of death, I think this is the real crime. It presents enemies as avatars you just turn off. It presents the death of loved ones as this beautiful moment of reconciliation with the universe. It's nothing like death as I've understood it in real life. When my grandparents died, it took months or more, with family members having to make sacrifices to take care of them and cope with ultimate awkwardness as the dying person passed in and out of dementia. I think of my aunt, who passed away from cancer, who was so tired of all the chemotherapy and treatment that she decided to stop. To stop being. How tired do you have to be to want to stop being?
Growing up, a large part of my family enjoyed mystery dramas on television, the kind that back in the day were made by the BBC, and shown on PBS's Masterpiece Theatre based on Agetha Christie stories, or Sherlock Holmes, or whoever. It struck me back then that it was weird that people would talk about a movie like Rambo as being senseless and gratuitous violence, and yet watching a human death turned into an amusing puzzle to solve was A-OK. Where's the legitimate empathy in discussing over tea how cleverly the murderer had snuck a weapon into a sealed room?
Somehow, to me, exposing myself to the reality of how our mortality is unfairly taken, gritty and unpleasant in its process, and not at romanticized, is the antidote to a culture that wants to pretend our deaths are survivable, if not literally then in the meaning of it all. When you see the brutally simple ways in which the human machine is made to stop functioning, it looks strange and fake, and the more fake reality looks, the more fiction is exposed for what it is, an attempt to sugar coat the uncomfortable tether we have to our material selves.
All of which is me grasping at some verbal description of shapeless feelings I have when I expose myself to horrors. Why can't I just think inside my mind about the understanding of my mortality? Why do I have to actually click on that link to another video of some poor person suffering the human condition? I don't know. Maybe it's as simple as the fact that knowing something intellectually and viscerally confronting it are two very different but equally important aspects of understanding. It's one thing to read a book on how to play a piano, it's another to touch a keyboard. Maybe I have unresolved issues of some kind. Maybe I'm just twisted.
I don't comment in any of the threads, but it can be sociologically fascinating to see what others say. Some people make jokes. Is that because they're trying to cope, or is it just a lack of empathy? Probably both, neither, and everything else. A lot of times people search for some kind of justice. When it's someone being executed by a Colombian drug cartel or something like that, you'll see a lot of people say that it's a shame but that's what happens when you live that kind of life. It doesn't have to be justice in the sense of the person deserving it so much as it's just the inevitable result of bad choices. Don't go down certain paths, and you won't get punished. It comforts people to think there's an order in the universe, so others will die because of what they did, not just because. In the case of terrorism, like ISIS beheadings or whatever, it becomes the justification that calls for more bombings, more military suppression by the more "advanced" civilizations. You see, when they kill, it's barbaric and unjustified, but when we do it it's clean and fair in its indiscriminate destruction.
What you don't see a lot of is raw expression of enjoyment purely from the point of view of being entertained. Do people feel it but are cautious about expressing it? Or is that a much less important facet of the multidimensional array of reactions that people are feeling?
It comes back to Dan Carlin's central question. Are we fundamentally brutal in nature, or fundamentally compassionate?
I don't think it's a matter of choosing, because we're capable of being both, and neither one is the fundamental. Humans are by nature empathetic to their in-groups, and capable of uncomfortably degrees of cruelty to anyone defined as an outsider, the "other". What defines an "other" can be anything, but especially the threat they pose to your in group. If Osama Bin Laden had been brought to New York for a public execution, how many people would have watched? How many people would have brought pizza? As it was, the fact that he was taken out in an extra-judicial assassination without any need for any kind of due process, presentation of evidence, or anything like that, was totally fine by many people within a culture that proclaims to hold those things in high regard. The very same people who think Bin Laden deserved it are the ones who think the reason he deserved it was because he doesn't hold our values, the ones that we proclaim should stand in the way of killing him the way we did.
How elaborately would you have to torture a figure like Hitler or Pol Pot or Leopold II before people thought it was too much? And who is asking the question?
The real issue at the heart of Dan Carlin's question, to me, is about changing perceptions of otherness. In the Roman era, not being Roman meant being an other. Being of certain castes in society put you at risk of becoming an other. Being a criminal then, like most of history, including now, makes you an other. Roman definitions of otherness was wide enough to keep a constant supply of material for the gladiator pits.
Now, note that when Hollywood makes a movie about the invasion of Afghanistan or Iraq, they bend over backwards to present at least one Afghan or Iraqi characters as being good. You're likely to see scenes of American soldiers rescuing families, trying to parse out who exactly is the other. It's not the Iraqi people, because we're not racists. It's the Iraqi leadership, or elements within Iraqi society. It's a level of nuance that exists less and less as you go back in history, and is far from universal today.
Once you've made someone an other, and then you watch their complicated demise with glee, are you a monster? A monster created by society, or a monster barely held back by society? Carlin describes people who wrote about being at public executions in various times of human history, and one writer, I forget who, describes watching a woman who laughs and shouts encouragement while watching a criminal be put to death. The writer is horrified by her base mentality. The whole discussion, from the writer's perception, to Dan Carlin's analysis, is framed in whether or not this woman is good or bad because of her reaction to an execution. Just as the question is framed for all public viewings and reactions.
But maybe she wasn't reacting to the death at all, or at least, it wasn't what informed her behaviour. In a society where we're taught to mourn at funerals, to shake our heads at statistics of crime and war deaths in the news, and be excited by triumphant destruction of the enemy in fictional accounts, where was the lesson about how to behave at a mass public execution? I think in a situation where humans are presented with an uncommon public occurrence, we don't look to our higher ethical ideals for guidance on behaviour, we look to how the humans around us are behaving. How did they behave in previous similar events? What event is similar to to a public execution? A mass spectacle? Most mass events that bring together stadiums of people are concerts and sports matches where people cheer and shout.
I don't think the accounts of people behaving at public executions in ways that we find disgraceful inform us about the fundamental nature of our relationship to death and killing. I think it's more about how we fit in. I think people in modern industrial societies are free to be appalled at the idea of a public execution because as a larger community the concept of being appalled exists as a known public perception. In modern times you're more likely to fit in at a public death spectacle, if somehow one happened, by being appalled, because you have at least some behavioural template to help reduce the guesswork.
So, if watching how others watch death doesn't give us insight into whether or not we're generally empathic or faking it so that society doesn't fall apart, then what does? I don't know. I don't know if the question can even be rationally addressed because you can't remove enough variables to be sure you have a clear window into our souls.
All I know is that I don't watch people die because I want them to die, or because it's entertaining, or even anything to do with them. What I care about is me, and my death, and the many ways it could happen. At least part of my focus is how the people meet their fate, whether they cry, or are stoic, or surprised, or the many times it's an emotion I don't even know if I can know. How will I feel going into that moment?
I can't know the circumstance of how I will die, but I know it can't matter if there's nothing to lose. Death isn't really a thing, it's the absence of a thing. The same way darkness has no substance, it's defined by the absence of light, death is nothing more than the absence of life, and it's value is measured in how much life is lost. My death only matters to the degree I value my life, and the value of my life is created by how much of me I put into it.
It's good, healthy, I think, to remind yourself to create something worth keeping, especially if that thing is the entirety of your life. Which you might say could be accomplished by a post-it note on the fridge. But that lacks visceral impact. I watch people die not as an intellectual contemplative exercise, but an emotional one. It manifests the uncomfortable reality that I could get snuffed out at any arbitrary moment, maybe even before finishing thi