Wind Sprints: A view of violence from Dealey Plaza (editor column)
On Nov. 22, 1963, just before noon, Abraham Zapruder set up his 8 mm Bell & Howell camera and began filming as President John F. Kennedy’s motorcade rolled through Dealey Plaza in Dallas. That roll of film, all 26 seconds of it, recorded one of the most iconic tragedies in American history. It may be the most famous film ever captured, next to the moon landing.
And yet, Zapruder never wanted it released.
“I don’t think the film could ever be considered a blessing, and it’s probably too strong to call it a curse,” his granddaughter Alexandra Zapruder told the New York Daily News in a 2013 interview. “The film was a burden on my grandfather … I am certain that he wished he had never taken it, and that no one would have to see it.”
Whether Zapruder liked it or not, Dallas was the birthplace of the shocking bit of eyewitness footage. Today, we’re all Zapruders, but without the reserve. With our smartphones in hand, we record every grisly, gory detail. And we want everyone to see.
It’s live on Facebook. It’s trending. It’s NSFW.
While one woman videos herself laughing hysterically in a Chewbacca mask, another uses Facebook Live to broadcast the violent shooting death of her fiancé, Philando Castile, at the hands of officers in Minnesota, while yet another uses a cell phone to record the slaying of Alton Sterling in Louisiana.
Here’s how The New York Times described the scene of Castile’s shooting:
“Diamond Reynolds was cool and composed as an anchorwoman on Wednesday night, her voice strong as she narrated the horrific scene around her into her phone that was streaming live on Facebook.
‘Please, officer, don’t tell me that you just did this to him,’ she said, as her boyfriend, Philando Castile, lay slumped and bleeding in the car next to her, fatally shot by a police officer. ‘You shot four bullets into him, sir. He was just getting his license and registration, sir.’”
These horrific images seem to wash over us with a disturbing frequency, leaving us numb — not enlightened. And yet, as a journalist, I feel these documents do have some merit. They can spark political speech and action. They can bring context and clarity into a confusing situation. Diamond Reynolds indeed committed an act of journalism when she filmed Castile’s death.
I went to high school in downtown Dallas, not far at all from Dealey Plaza, and only a few blocks away from where a lone gunman on Thursday night opened fire on police officers, killing five and injuring seven. That awful event was filmed from multiple angles and by multiple phones.
Zapruder, a humble dressmaker, would not have known what to make of it. To be sure, he would not have taken it lightly, and yet depictions of extreme violence are now what we view as we drink our morning coffee. It may not be safe for work, but it’s surely fine to bring to our breakfast table.
The futurist Alvin Toffler died last week. In his seminal 1970 work, “Future Shock,” he argued that massive technological changes could sicken and overwhelm our senses.
“Millions of human beings will find themselves increasingly disoriented, progressively incompetent to deal rationally with their environments,” he wrote.
When we are constantly flooded with undifferentiated information and images, do we become impotent and paralyzed? Do we just become another member of the studio audience?
Neil Postman, the author of “Amusing Ourselves To Death,” answered those questions this way: “[M]ost of our daily news is inert, consisting of information that gives us something to talk about but cannot lead to any meaningful action.”
I don’t know about you, but that is precisely the way I feel every time a national tragedy is tweeted, live-streamed, broadcast and beamed into our living rooms. How do I grieve? How do I take action?
Even with our new digital technology, I suppose we’re still just as overcome by the uncertainty of life as our forebears were on Nov. 22, 1963. To this day, we’re still trying to make sense of the Kennedy assassination.
Why do I think I can wrap my mind around a military veteran who decided to open fire on others who have vowed to serve and protect? Because we have better footage? Not likely.
Ben Trollinger is the managing editor of the Summit Daily News. Contact him at (970) 668-4618 or at email@example.com.
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