Thursday, July 24, 2014

MH17 and the Great Graphic Image Issue

Okay, so maybe it’s not the great graphic image issue I made it out to be right there, but I've certainly heard a lot of chatter about it. Granted this has been mainly in the online response sections to articles on various media outlets, but it’s chatter all the same. I thought that this would be a taboo subject to write about, so being as sensitive as a train wreck, I nominated myself as the man for the job.

I find myself in an interesting position when it comes to dealing with graphic images in the media, the silver screen, or in real life situations. I have been involved in public safety in one aspect or another since I was 17 years old. I started out by getting my emergency medical technician’s license at 17 and worked on different rescue services throughout time. In addition to this I've professionally been both a police officer and public safety dispatcher. As you can imagine, I've seen my fair share of horrible losses of human life, and no, they’re not pretty.

  I don’t care what anyone tells you, the first tragedy is not anymore pleasant than the tenth one that you see. The difference is that you know how to process it. You know how you’re going to react, and what you need to do to take care of yourself and stay well. I would compare this to a physical injury. Being involved in what we called a “critical incident” was akin to an mental health injury, if you will. You had to apply the appropriate first aid. This could be anything from walking it off to a big operation. The important thing to remember, is that everyone handles these things differently.

On to the aviation side of this, we have on our hands with MH17 a very unique situation. It’s not often that an innocent jetliner gets dropped out of the sky into a war zone. I won’t get into my political rant and speculations, as they’re just that. I will say, however, what we do have is an airliner shot down in the age of the internet. An age where cell phone cameras abound, and the ability to put your images online with the tap of a screen are available in even third world countries.

It has been my experience that the news in that region of the world is far less censored than American news. Graphic images are posted freely, and seemingly without much regard for those who may find them. There is however, a large cultural difference here at play. You are dealing an area that has seen war, that is living war, and has lived in war. Modern conveniences are not as abundant, such as safety equipment or excellent medical care. It is a safe bet that death has been a much more up close and personal experience for the folks living in this region.

Which brings me back to this: They know how to process it. I’m not saying everyone does, so I suppose I shouldn’t say “they”. To be fair though, a large number of them have experienced deadly accidents or violence first hand. I watched a  journalist’s graphic video on the issue of the deceased recently. The victims were scattered over a large area, many in dismembered, over a sunflower field. One thing that caught my particular interest was the plight of a family who had two bodies in their field. It amazed me that they had them so nicely covered up in plastic sheeting weighted down with rocks. When bringing the film crew around they uncovered them gingerly. I felt that this was a sign of great care and I gained a new respect and common ground with these folks whom I would never meet.I say common ground because in my public safety career I worked with numerous folks who were extremely compassionate and conscientious in this same manner. Despite the emotional toll it took on them, they were consummate professionals.  

But alas, everyone has a breaking point, and despite reading only a translation, you could hear the desperation in the tone of their voice. Their plea was to have the bodies removed. The exposure to this “critical incident” would take more than “walking it off” for this family.

Many of the comments after this particular piece were aimed at the graphic image content and how it was disrespectful of the victims. Interestingly enough, the mix of ethnicities and religions on the aircraft all view death and burial in different manners and levels of importance.The problem comes when the people doing the reporting, the people doing the clean up, and the people doing the grieving are not all on the same team.

I personally feel that this type of reporting is often necessary to show people the reality of the situation, not just a canned and sanitized sound bite. I can only relate this to the police department. In the event of a major accident where someone died and there was to prosecution, the prosecutors office would sometimes come to the scene to witness it first hand. They would get to smell the smells, hear the sounds, and touch the hardware. This impact on them personally allowed them to pursue the case a with a clearer understanding.

Several of my friends live a clean, fairly safe, comfortable life here in America. They’re not exposed to death and violence unless they choose to be, in most cases. Face facts, we’re pretty lucky up here in Maine. It has always amused me that as Americans we let so much slide in terms of violence, sex, and death in video games, movies, and music, but when we present real graphic images of the news, that’s no good. Ah, the privileges we have and some don’t even realize how lucky they are.

I’m certainly not advocating that we go posting pictures of the deceased in mainstream media. I’m saying in the proper journalistic setting, aimed at the proper audience who has been forewarned, this type of reporting is extremely valuable in accurately representing the magnitude of the disaster. I feel that sugar coating the issue wouldn’t provide the social justice needed for those who died. The story of their death needs to be told, and the visual just happens to be part of that story.

In the aviation community there are many who will be affected by this tragedy. Some of us will set about it intellectually, looking at policies, procedures, and politics. Some may have it nagging at the back of their mind as they walk down the jetway to scoot off to another meeting in yet another state. International crews will no doubt have the elephant in the room for some time to come. All will be sad.
I feel safe in saying that there is a little button on all of our hearts labeled “melt”. This button certainly leads to a different part of the heart for all of us. In my case it is kids and stuffed animals. My son has a sock monkey. I think I love it more than he does. As a cop I gave tons of “stuffy” away to kids in traumatic situations. You’d be amazed at the amount of hope and comfort a “stuffy” gives. If you ever get a chance to read “JetHead” Chris Manno’s blog, do it. Read the one about rescuing the stuffy. He nails it on the head and became my new hero, right behind John Glenn. I tell you all of this because the last picture of wreckage I looked at from MH17 was an image of mangled seats, and on the ground next to it: a stuffy. Someone hit the “melt” button and the hard shell went away. Leaving behind horror. No more processing, just stark, cold, horror.

It is my sincere wish that each and every victim is repatriated and cared for by their family in the manner of worship that they so choose. They’ve earned that. Even the stuffy.

**Notes: Please remember: All views are my own. I’m not an expert on culture or religion, this is all just a take on things from my basic education and slightly more trained than john q citizen position. This work is not copy edited so please expect poor grammar.