Death of Affect

The title of this post is words borrowed from J.G. Ballard and they put me in mind of the fact that one of the things that sets our era apart from preceding ones is the various movements that have resulted in the widespread death of millions of innocent people. We use words like “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” to describe those movements, but those words hardly describe the systematic elimination of whole groups of people — such as an estimated 22 million souls under the various programs initiated by Joseph Stalin in the last century. And it behooves us to mention the current use of drones by this country to “take out” terrorists while killing thousands of innocent civilians. Indeed, the inclusion of ordinary citizens in the death count in recent wars is something relatively new in human history. In order to distinguish these events from the systematic “removal” of eight million Jews from Germany and Eastern Europe under the Nazis the term “Holocaust” was coined in the mid 1960s and it does a fairly good job of establishing the uniqueness of the events surrounding the “Final Solution” that was carried out by such people as Adolph Eichmann under Hitler in the 1930s and 1940s.

The term “Holocaust” enjoys special status and has not (yet) been borrowed or stolen by historians or social scientists in their efforts to describe other such events — such as the more recent “ethnic cleansing” in Eastern Europe. But it matters not. What happens is that we hear the word, or the words, so often that we become inured to them. They cease to have any real meaning.  How can any of us imagine, for example, what the words “twenty million” even mean when applied to the death of civilians who have done nothing whatever to deserve those deaths, except that they were different? We cannot.

Eventually, the words cease to have any real meaning and, worse yet, the events that those words are supposed to describe cease to have any reality for us. Those are things that happened to other people somewhere else. We adopt what has been called a “survival strategy” that protects us from such harsh realities. We exhibit “selective apathy, emotional disengagement from others, renunciation of the past and the future, a determination to live one day at a time,” as Christopher Lasch said in describing the mindset of those in the death camps who had given up all hope. After all, if a nation decides to systematically “remove” its own citizens what recourse does anyone have? The only option is to focus exclusively on one’s own survival. Nothing else matters.

The point of all this is to draw attention to the distinct possibility that we may already be adopting the same strategy in the face of the facts and descriptions of the mass killings that fill our newspapers and television on a daily basis — not to mention the constant reminders about world-wide terrorism and the violence that has become the order of the day on television, video games and American movies. After a while, those words and those events take on an abstract, unreal existence. We turn into ourselves and focus attention elsewhere rather than confront the terrible fact that there are maniacs who, heavily armed as they all seem to be, can decide who will and who will not live. As happens with medical doctors and policemen, after a while these events become the norm and our feelings shut down.

It is quite possible — he said, risking the charge of conspiracy theorist — that the powers that be in this country (mainly such powers as the N.R.A.) — are quite content that we should become desensitized to the daily mass killings by maniacs with automatic weapons who kill indiscriminately. It’s hard to turn on the television, or turn to the computer, or read a newspaper, without being told about another killing of numerous people by another maniac. And the hope may well be (one I do not share) that eventually we will become so desensitized to this news that we will stop paying attention altogether and cease to be concerned. After all, what can we do in the face of such powerful entities as the N.R.A. that has the Congress in its pocket and tells it how to vote?

This, it seems to me, is one of the most serious problem we face: that we will become so desensitized to the fact of grim and violent death that we will no longer care. It will be something for someone else to worry about. Instead, we worry about more important things, such as how the local sports team is doing and whether it will make the playoffs this year.


13 thoughts on “Death of Affect

  1. Revealing post, Hugh. I think we are becoming desensitized to killings to a certain extent. We care less about the daily deaths and that is unfortunate. This past week on top of the horrific tragedies in Turkey, Bangladesh and Baghdad, we continue to have daily shootings. A father accidentally killed his 14 year old at a shooting range was one less surprising story. Of all of the pressure the NRA places on scared polticians, the one that bothers me most is this group has fought the funding of the CDC to just measure the health risks of gun deaths and track better data. The question of all questions for the NRA is why are you so scared of this data?

  2. Hugh, I think you are quite correct on all this. Keith is, too. I confess there were so many terrorist attacks around the globe over the past week, I stopped paying detailed attention — they were far away, and blurred together. Like most aspects of the American war on terror, they are actions seen on TV or in print, but with little real-life effect on Americans’ everyday life. They become like video games, where we cannot perceive any real consequence. Except, of course, there are grave consequences.

    I think your point about our mental-emotional reaction is important. In World War II, American and Allied forces killed many, many more civilians than the U.S. drone attacks have killed in the Middle East. (Dresden, Berlin, Tokyo [perhaps a million civilian deaths], Hiroshima, Nagasaki, to name the most prominent sites of fire bombing and nuclear attacks.] But back then, I think, most Americans understood that it was something horrible to do, a last resort in a vicious, inhumane, war where total war was all the Japanese or Germans understood. The New Yorker ran a full-issue, book-length account by John Hershey of the bombing of Hiroshima, and it was taken so seriously that it helped reinforce vows to never again use a nuclear weapon. The fire-bombing of Dresden led to one of the greatest American novels of the 20th century, Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-5,” a stream-of-consciousness novel in which time travel and hallucination were prevalent. It didn’t always make sense, and it wasn’t supposed to — because war of that nature did not make sense.

    In Vietnam, photojournalists in the field showed Americans the awful outcome of napalm bombs and carpet bombings: naked children, burned, running in fear down a highway. Mothers cradling their dead children. We knew, once again, that it was horrible and the American public raised a holy-hell of a protest.

    Now? We read about the drone attacks, and shrug. We read about the initial “shock and awe” bombing campaign that killed many thousands in Baghdad more than a decade ago now, and shrug or, worse, laugh along with the generals at their televised briefings as they show video from a smart bomb’s camera as the bomb nears a driver on a bridge and then blows him up.

    We are desensitized, I fear, too. And much more self-absorbed. And it’s all so remote we are even more — cold-hearted: it ain’t happening here, so, eh.

    And that carries over into our response to gun violence, into the general apathy (there’s a lot of anger, but impotent anger) over the NRA’s sway over Congress. I read this the other day: there have been more gun deaths in America over the past decade than there were American combat deaths in World War II. So, it IS affecting us. But that desensitization and bamboozlement by the NRA does not let us respond properly. Instead, we respond in stupefying ways. Despite very reliable FBI statistics that show violent crime in America has fallen each year since 1991, American gun purchases have skyrocketed in the same time frame. How does that make sense? The country is, statistically, getting safer, but we are getting more afraid. The NRA’s lobbying machine is a major culprit. But so are the same qualities within us that allow us, now, to shrug at a drone attack that kills mothers, children and people with no connections at all to terrorists.

    The recent death of Elie Wiesel should remind us that when we begin to turn cold and apathetic about the killings of others, we begin to die ourselves. Our souls die. Soon, the rest of us does, too.

    • Beautifully put. Many thanks. I dare say, the NRA would interpret your data differently: the lower crime rates are DUE TO the fact that more citizens are armed. I don’t buy it, but I can hear them selling it that way. I also heard that there are more gun deaths in this country from toddlers than by terrorists (and, I gather, they give the widest possible interpretation to the word “terrorist”).

      • Safety is relative. We still lead the wealthiest 23 nations in gun deaths and it is not even close. Canada likes its guns, but has about 1/3 the gun death rate as we do. So, we are better, but still relatively bad.

    • Your response is so well put. I agree that we have become desensitized. I also think that we are overwhelmed with so much information every day that we just don’t have the time or are not allowed the time to process events. We don’t really reflect anymore. To me, Sandy Hook was so, so horrible but since then, it’s like we just move on to the next mass killing. It makes me terribly sad that so many have lost their lives to such violence. It also makes me angry that literally nothing has changed since Sandy Hook.

  3. Agreed Keith. Safety is relative. I hate going places and wondering if it is “safe” or not. But anymore, anywhere can be a target area. We worry and focus so much on “terrorism” attacks and yes, while that is a realistic concern, why are we not more concerned about domestic terrorism? I wonder what it will take, if anything, to make changes here in our own country to diminish these mass killings

    • I do think the horse is out of the barn. I doubt the trend can be reversed. Now it’s a matter of trying to corral some the violence and punish those who commit atrocities.

    • It will take political courage which seems to be lacking. Leaders will need to look a funder in the eye and say we are going to do it differently. We also need the better gun governance people to be as passionate as the NRA fans. I read while the surveys overwhelmingly want better gun control, a representative said when he considers legislation the phone calls are 200 to 1 by the NRA crowd. On the NRA website, they have meeting dates/ times/ rooms, preset talking points and legislators contact info, etc. all lined up for action by their supporters.

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