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The Week America Watched Death on Our Phones

The tragedies in Baton Rouge, Minnesota, and Dallas were made fresh and sharp by how easy it was to watch the horrific footage.

by Harry Cheadle
Jul 8 2016, 7:18pm

Vehicles outside Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas on Friday. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)​

On Wednesday morning, people across the country woke up, opened their laptops and phones, and watched the police killing of Alton Sterling. That evening, maybe while eating dinner, we watched Philando Castile bleed out after a Minnesota cop shot him in his car. Last night, we were stunned by videos from the horrific attack on police at a Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas.

It's a strange thing, being able to watch death like that. Few people were directly affected by these events; few can understand what it's like when a loved one is shot in the street, or during a routine traffic stop, or while doing their job trying to keep others safe. Yet these tragedies feel fresh and immediate. The updates stream in on Twitter or Facebook, the videos are passed around, we learn the terrible individual details that always come at times like these. The way Castile's fiancée calmly narrates what just happened while he dies next to her. The image of the cop pulling his gun out of the holster seconds before Sterling is killed. The split-second after the first shots in Dallas when terror ripples through the crowd.

Sometimes, especially in the case of police shootings, videos can be important pieces of evidence, galvanizing the public to take action and potentially even helping prosecutors punish killers. But after a week of violence being shared and re-shared everywhere, a numbness can settle in. What is the point of posting a video of a cop being killed in cold blood in Dallas? Is posting graphic videos of deaths a necessary part of covering the news, or a cheap way to attract eyeballs? When does outrage become ordinary, and unproductive, rage?

The Thursday morning edition of the New York Daily News didn't hold back, splashing a blown-up image of Sterling's bloodied body on the cover. "HIS HANDS WERE EMPTY" screamed the headline—in other words, he didn't have a gun, and the cops' actions were therefore inexcusable. The Daily News has been consistent for years in its crusading coverage of both police brutality and gun violence (see the cover it was planning to run on Friday before news from Dallas broke), and it doesn't shy away from uncomfortable images it believes are in service of that coverage. Last year, when a gunman filmed himself killing reporters in Virginia, the Daily News ran screenshots from the video on its cover, and was widely criticized on social media. This week, it was hit with some of the same criticisms—that such images are insensitive, traumatizing to the families of victims, and merely a way to sell papers.

Daily News editor in chief Jim Rich defended the cover on Twitter, at one point writing, "This is the horrific reality of what cops continue to do with impunity. People need to see the truth. You should be offended." This argument is subtler than anything that can be bannered on a tabloid cover: When does truth trump sensitivity? When should you avoid calling attention to a powerful image on the grounds that it may disturb people? (Journalists' traditional answers to those questions are always and never, respectively.)

The staff at the News surely give careful consideration to every cover they print. Social media is a different beast entirely, and in the aftermath of Dallas the noise threatened to obscure the events on the ground. On Thursday night, the Dallas Police Department's Twitter account posted a photo of a black man with a gun walking in the protest, identifying him as a suspect; in fact, he had nothing to do with the attack, though he's now reportedly receiving death threats.

Then there were the run-of-the-mill shards of hate and ignorance, like the former GOP congressman who tweeted, then deleted, a statement about how "real America" was coming after "black lives matter punks" and Barack Obama. Or the conservative law-and-order Milwaukee sheriff blaming Obama for "pouring gas on the situation." A Trump campaign official took to Facebook to denounce Hillary Clinton "for essentially encouraging the murder of these police officers tonight." A distillation of the worst response to the week's killings could be found on the Friday cover of the right-wing competition of the Daily News, the New York Post: "CIVIL WAR."

Anger, as one famous study showed, is the emotion that spreads the fastest online, but fear can't be far behind on that list. And the membrane between online and offline lives seems to grow thinner by the day. The US is a violent place, a truth most Americans have always understood in the abstract, but that violence seems so much closer when you can find it scrolling through Facebook. When it was announced the US Capitol had gone on lockdown after cops spotted an object that looked like a gun in a backpack, it seemed like the entire country was getting jumpy, bracing itself for the next blow.

Social media magnifies outrage, it inflicts wounds on us, it makes us anxious and angry at injustice. It hardly ever provides a way to heal. Pain is viral; the fact that most people everywhere hate all kinds of killing is usually underreported. This likely won't be the last week when it feels like America is awash in murder. You and I won't be able to do anything to stop that. What we can do is, occasionally, turn away from the fear that flashes across our screens. Not out of a sense of complacency or callousness, but in order to keep our sense of perspective. The sort of rage the Post and others are peddling will not make us any safer. Arguments on Facebook are not productive forms of activism. It's better to wait for accurate news than to tweet blindly about events far away from you.

The Dallas police force, under Chief David Brown, has reduced excessive force complaints and improved community relations thanks to reforms of the sort that activists often suggest. There are policies that could reduce gun violence, if Congress finally acquires the political will to do so. Black Lives Matter protesters, like the ones marching in Dallas, have turned police brutality into a national issue. It's possible that things are getting better, however slowly. That's important to remember on days like this.

Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.