Engaging Wisely With Real-World Violence

I had been planning on writing this blog even before the horrific events in Dallas, Texas, last night. As people gathered there to protest the shootings of two black men by police officers earlier this week, snipers opened fire on Dallas police working the event, killing five and wounding seven others.

What I want to address today is how images of real-world violence—sometimes even in real time—potentially influence and shape those of us who engage with them. This is an incredibly complex set of overlapping issues, of course. So consider my thoughts here a reflection-in-progress, if you will, on how we relate to violence as it’s depicted in the media today.

Plugged In has often weighed in on the parallel conversation about violence in entertainment. Specifically, whether graphic movies, TV shows, video games, music and—increasingly—social media reflect society, reinforce the violence there, or both.

But what about the real violence that we witness, events that we see on the news and on our Facebook feeds? How does viewing actual bloodshed effect our souls, our perceptions of others and our view of the world?

I don’t believe there’s a single right answer to those questions. But I also believe they’re important ones to grapple with.

That reality was rammed home for me forcefully after the terrorist bombing at Atatürk Airport in Istanbul June 28. That attack claimed the lives of 45 people and wounded scores more.

Now, terrorist attacks are hardly a new thing. When I was growing up, I remember hearing and seeing news stories about the seemingly unending attacks and reprisals in places such as Lebanon and Northern Ireland.

What’s changed in recent years, however, is the prevalence of cameras everywhere. That means in many—if not most—cases these days, when there’s violence, there’s probably a video of it, too.

That was true in Istanbul. I sat watching the news, with my children in and out of the room, as the network I was viewing kept playing and replaying footage of a suicide bomber being gunned down … and then exploding.

Likewise, last night I did what myriad other Americans probably did: I watched the news coverage of the shootings in Dallas for about an hour in real time, with real images of real people lying on the ground.

Is it wrong or bad to be drawn into such stories? I don’t think so. I think it’s human nature. There’s a compelling, morbid curiosity about what’s happened, what’s going to happen. It’s not that different, really, than driving by a terrible accident on the highway. Some dark part of us feels compelled to see, to know how bad the carnage really is.

There may be some legitimate reasons for staring such violence directly in the bloody face. Sometimes, we may need to come terms with how brutal a certain reality in our culture or world is if we hope to respond redemptively.

But I also wonder how often we do respond in that way to the flood of bloody images that fills our screens so frequently. As is true with violent entertainment, I suspect that if we don’t take the time to reflect on what we’ve seen, we may become desensitized to the reality that these are real lives, real people.

You might have noticed that I’ve used the word real a whole bunch of times here. That’s because we need to be reminded of that truth. It’s not a movie. It’s not CSI. It’s not a video game when we witness such things on TV, on our smartphones.

But there’s something about the nature of our beloved digital delivery devices that can make it seem unreal nevertheless. And when that happens, we do become desensitized. We do become likely to digitally “rubberneck” at the devastation.

Given that tendency, I think we need to develop the habit of asking ourselves some important questions in moments like these.

Do I really need to see the graphic imagery involved in a particular story to comprehend the brutality of it?

How am I really responding to what I’ve witnessed? Am I moved to compassion and empathy? Or am I not moved at all? (If the answer is the latter, it’s a clue about how we’re interacting with real-life violence).

Am I allowing my children to be exposed to such stories? If so, how might it be affecting them, and what am I doing to help them think through these horrible realities?

These are questions I need to ask myself, too, by the way. I’m as likely as anyone to want to know what’s going on.

In times like these, I desperately need God’s help to see the world as He sees it, to remember that each victim represents a soul that reflects His divine image in a battered world. In times like these, I need to pray first for those who’ve been directly impacted by such horror. And I need to pray for myself, my family and my friends, too, that we wouldn’t be hardened by such tragic images, but that God would keep softening our hearts and helping us to see every person as being of inestimable value and dignity.