Tyler Lewis, UMBC:
The events taking place in Syria, and in other parts of the world today, are violent and aggressive, and the extent to just how sickeningly twisted those events are, can be difficult to process. War is a gruesome concept and terrorism is a distressing ideology; it does not take extensive examination to understand why. The fundamental components of both are death and murder, and the very nature of these concepts is disturbing to the average mind.
According to archaeologists who found skeletons that were the victims of violent, man inflicted deaths, war has been a part of the human experience for over 14,000 years. Although ancient weaponry was barbaric and cruel, it did not have the relative ability to kill and maim massive numbers of people. It wasn’t until the invention of modern weapons (bombs, explosives, missiles, nuclear capabilities, etc.) that mass-attacks became possible, and the dynamics of war shifted to a more fluid and destructive era.
Before the advent of modern communications, the events of war were told through word of mouth. With the invention of papyrus and written language, it became possible for non-participants to learn about the status of an ongoing war through reading about it. This practice lasted until 1879 when the discovery of electricity sparked an industrial boom in communication. The telegraph, camera, telephone, radio, and television would eventually become primary forms of acquiring information.
The ability of these technologies to revolutionize the means of information exchange can be understood through the Vietnam War. Also referred to as “The First Televised War”, this conflict was witnessed firsthand by Americans from the safety and comfort of their living rooms. Walter Cronkite, a broadcast journalist at the time, provided coverage of the events of the war. Americans took his opinions for face value, and when he famously declared that the US could not win after the Tet Offensive, many Americans began to oppose the war. Prior to the camera and television, words were the only way to describe and depict the horrors of war. Words can be perceived in many ways, twisted to support whatever a person subconsciously desires to be their reality. Language can be deceiving, but once photographs and videos were commercially produced, it became harder to deflect the disturbing reality and truth of war and terrorism.
Fast-forward half a century, and with the arrival of the Internet and social media, we have become bombarded with detailed coverage of international events. On our news feeds we see videos of Islamic terrorist groups carrying out despicable acts, we see videos of dispossessed Syrian refugees in makeshift boats trying to flee their country, and we see pictures and videos of the dead bodies of innocent Parisian civilians.
The videos, articles and photographs, that cover these terrible events, are in our social media timelines, mixed in with funny vines and memes meant to make us laugh. This can cause us to become numb to events that might once have evoked strong emotion.
A study conducted by Brad J. Bushman of the University of Michigan and Amsterdam, and Craig A. Anderson of Iowa State University, aimed to prove that “exposure to violent media reduces aid offered to people in pain.” In one of their studies, they had one group of people attend violent movies, and one group attend non-violent movies. Upon exiting the theater, the subjects saw a woman with an injured ankle, struggling to pick up her crutches. According to the study, “Participants who had just watched a violent movie took longer to help than participants who didn’t. Their findings suggest that violence in media makes people numb to the pain and suffering of others.”
We have become so exposed to death and murder virtually, that it has desensitized a portion of our population. We can only be exposed to so much darkness, before we start to acclimate to it as part of our everyday lives, along with Buzzfeed posts and funny YouTube videos.
This darkness is prevalent and perpetual. Just this week, our social media timelines became permeated with images of the San Bernardino shooting, where 14 people were killed and 21 were injured by a couple who ideologically aligned with the leader of the Islamic State militant group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Images of the victims quickly surfaced, showing the bodies being carried out on stretchers and the injured receiving medical aid.
The horrific events that took place in San Bernardino were domestic. The events taking place in Syria, an ocean away, have persistently been so grim and bleak that it seems their shock value has worn off. Terrible events become very real when they take place in our country. When they take place in a country that is thousands of miles away from the observer, reality becomes vulnerable to distortion.
We have all seen videos of refugees packed into inflatable boats like cattle, arriving on the shores of the Greek island of Lesbos. We have also seen videos of the places they are fleeing. Places like the city of Raqqua in northern Syria are horrific. Where forced prayers, no music, and no entertainment are a fact of life to those living there imposed by ISIL. We have watched the relentless airstrikes and bombings alike, yet we do nothing about it.
This is not a ploy to say we should or should not allow Syrian refugees into the country. However I believe that if the circumstances of Syria today, were occurring at the point in history where Internet and social media usage had begun to gain traction, our collective reaction and level of empathy towards the events in Syria, and those affected, would be drastically different than what we observe today. Extensive exposure has dulled the emotion of empathy, and all the positive change collective empathy can create.