In 1999, I was 17 years old and a junior in high school when the shootings occurred at Columbine. I remember at the time how shocked I was by the whole incident, and in those early years of the internet being glued to the coverage about the victims and perpetrators. For weeks I was consumed with the stories and wasn’t able to focus on much else. Fast forward 13 years to the morning of Friday, December 14th as news breaks about the Newtown shootings. For the next few hours I watched the live feed on CNN.com and scoured other news sites for updates. But by midafternoon my mind had shifted back to work – running some analyses, writing sections of a journal article, and thinking about what my year in review post would be about for Acculturated.
It was only when I got up to leave my office that I realized how I hadn’t checked what was happening in Newtown for the last few hours, and it struck me. Was I really able to just step away from this horrific story and put my mind elsewhere just hours after it even occurred? It was at that moment that I realized how desensitized I had become to these types of events, having witnessed hundreds of real life and thousands of cinematic horror stories over these last 13 years. And then I thought about this year in particular.
On Breaking Bad, Walt truly goes to the dark side and this season treated us to multiple gut wrenching scenes, from Todd shooting a kid in cold blood to a montage of people getting murdered in prison, including one person getting burned alive. On The Walking Dead, the pile up of killed zombies grew exponentially and the killings have become more gruesome – one count has the season three kills at 349 and we’re only hallway through. On Mad Men, a show that has certainly showcased gruesome personality traits but no gruesome images, we are exposed not only to the dead body of Lane Pryce after he hung himself, but we also witness the awkwardness of trying to unhang the stiff corpse. On Homeland we end this season with an explosion that kills 250 people, with a final scene of Saul standing in a large warehouse surrounded by hundreds of white body bags. And of course who could forget the blurring of real life and fiction, when a shooter entered a showing of The Dark Knight Rises and killed 12 people?
The buildup of my desensitization comes with a strange mixture of sadness and relief – sad that I have somehow gotten “used to” these tragedies out of a mixture of fictional and real life exposure and relief that I don’t mentally shut down when these horrific things happen. As 2012 comes to a close I am forced to acknowledge the reality that my numbness to tragedy has grown. I guess I just don’t know whether to be OK with that or not.