In the past couple of weeks, our media screens have been saturated with the horror of death, more so than any fortnight I remember. In particular the appalling downing of flight MH17 in east Ukraine has dominated online coverage. Naturally, this has focused our attention on what is going on elsewhere, but perhaps the coverage tells us something crucial about ourselves too.
I guess there are many understandable and intermingled reasons for the depth of coverage in Ukraine: the utter tragedy of lives lost and so far from home; a distant conflict now becoming harder to ignore; insight into a foreign culture that seems so different to ours.
Perhaps I can posit another: MH17 allowed us to release our repressed fascination with mortality.
Take, for example, the moment when Sky News journalist Colin Brazier began picking through one of the crash victims’ luggage on live TV. The controversy caused by Brazier’s actions demonstrated the fine line of ethics in the media: we want information, we want detail, we want to peer in, yet we know deep down there’s a line somewhere. Almost immediately Brazier realised his actions were inappropriate, yet the crime had apparently been committed and he was hounded over the weekend for apparently crossing that line.
Last week, The Guardian published Brazier’s apology – seemingly contrite and moving.
It’s easy for us to throw our pebbles at Brazier and portray him as the epitome of the shameless media machine; ruthless not in its pursuit of truth but in its sensationalising of death. But as he pointed out in his apology piece, the uniqueness of the MH17 was that there were few limits. There were no real authorities on the ground: no cordons or police tape. The normal rules and expectations were not present, and so effectively it became ‘anything goes’.
And yet what was feeding that culture? Can we really deny that it’s our own eyes and minds that want news like this? Evidently we believe some journalists can go too far for our liking, yet the reality was that social media shows it was possible to go much further, apparently without the same ethical outrage. Hence, even the film clip of Brazier’s actions went viral, thus becoming something that we were now effectively permitted to view.
Perhaps we don’t like to linger on the point, but could it not be that in the Brazier incident we were given a way of disguising our own fascination, as together we looked down on ‘the fool who went too far’.
If I were in Brazier’s shoes, would I really have stopped short of lifting up someone’s belongings, as they lay scattered on the charred ground in front of me, a physical reminder before my eyes of life taken too soon? And if we insist yes, what about when the camera stopped rolling?
Of course there are bloody conflicts going on across the globe, yet the enthrallment with MH17 is surely that it was people like us; young men and women in the prime of life; families going on holidays, and professionals heading to conferences. Just another long-haul flight. And then, suddenly, death.
In the Western world we don’t have to face up to mortality much. We put heaps of money into trying to appear young, covering up the aging process. We ‘outsource’ our elderly, so dying is not on our doorstep. And with so much pressure placed on people to achieve, to maximise one’s experiences, and to control one’s life, we just don’t really know what to do with death.
It’s partly why the Death Café movement has appeared.In a culture of death-avoidance, it’s understandable to find some people wanting to break out.
And so maybe this is why, when something like MH17 comes along, we’re strangely fascinated. Our culture of immortality has made us voyeurs of death. Suddenly we have been woken up to the reality of its horrific existence. Maybe Elvis doesn’t live. Death exists and, as the Bible puts it, it is an enemy. It steals and stings and scars, paying no respect to prospects and plans and potential. Of course, it raises bigger questions, perhaps uncomfortable ones: Is this it? Is there anything after death?
Brazier has acknowledged his ‘error of judgment’, but perhaps there’s something telling about his actions. When it comes to death, our cultural avoidance-tactic is not only negligent but dissatisfying too. There are few things more important than knowing our own mortality, and so for all its ugliness, we should allow this media voyeurism to awaken us to that.
Photo credit: By Roman Boed from The Netherlands (Amsterdam Airport: Flight MH17 Memorial) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons