The majority of people on a trauma call just stare at the dying

Tuesday, October 17th, 2023

On X (formerly Twitter), Eric Hoel commented, most of the timeline consisted of short videos of war crimes. I find comments about X (formerly Twitter) interesting, because “the timeline” isn’t a thing. My timeline wasn’t full of gruesome imagery — and I didn’t have to play any videos that suggested sadistic violence.

But I will admit to getting drawn into a few violent videos, after seeing them referenced repeatedly:

In the past few days, it’s been clips from the incursion into Israel, but it is now common to see what is effectively a short snuff film every day online, even when there is no war, no invasion, and without looking for them.

Call them “snuff clips.” Someone stabbed on the street in New York. Or shot in the back of the head at a crosswalk in Chicago. Or a soldier pleading with a hovering drone in the Ukrainian war. If you log on, you will be shown. And consequently many of the political debates that have dominated our culture over the past years have been based on graphic videos, even just domestically.

So my question is: Just how familiar should a polity be with death?

That is an interesting question, because we don’t want a polity that’s naive about how violence works, demanding that police stop violent criminals without hurting them, etc., but we also don’t want a polity demanding immediate, thoughtless action, in response to the latest outrage.

Anyway, Hoel starts with the problematic and uncomfortable truth that bloodsport is the most entertaining of all sports:

We humans, we apes, are most interested in violence, in its drama and potential and stakes. Now-a-days it is common to think, because of our screens and our phones and our technology, that we have beaten boredom, and that we are the most entertained any civilization has ever been. Wrong. Imagine the setting sun over the colosseum as two men fight to the death in the sand. You and your friends are drinking wine and eating bread, candies, nuts. Every thrust, every exhausted recovery, is so filled with meaning you cannot look away. Spectating a football game is incomparable. It turns out sitting in the stands drunk watching people die was popular, and has always been popular, because it really is titillating, thrilling, dramatic, an infinite jest, to watch other people in life and death situations. Left to our own devices, bloodsport is a global minimum we humans fall into unless some specific ideology or religion acts as a barrier for our fall.

Regardless of what exactly the barrier was — maybe it was our liberal order, maybe the greater cultural relevancy of religion, maybe just the idea of America as representing historical progress — in the world I grew up in, by which I mean America in the 1990s and early 2000s, watching death openly was frowned upon. It was beneath us as a culture.

Make-believe violence has been big business for a long, long time, and the 1980s were the heyday of violent action movies.

Perhaps, he suggests, one could argue that the rise of the snuff clip genre is a visual corrective:

Maybe we shouldn’t think that violence unfolds like the movies where one guys beats up three, or where women regularly throw some big dude using judo, or whatever. Where you can do something, anything, against someone with a gun. The truth is none of that happens in real life. It all occurs really fast. The people most likely to react in such situations are usually aggressive young men, often to their own demise. But most people just stand there, and then they’re dead.

One time in college I shadowed on an ambulance, and the EMTs told me that the majority of people on a trauma call just stare at the dying. They don’t even call 911. “The stare of life” was their gallows humor term for it.

The stare of life.

He’s not comfortable with this informative facet of violent videos and sees them as more like the Roman gladiatorial games — but the problem with gladiatorial games is putting people to death for your own amusement, not being curious about violence.


  1. VXXC says:

    Just how familiar should a polity be with death?

    Very. Don’t worry, Human nature was banished but HE has returned.

    As far as thoughtless action in response…

    I suppose the alternative is ‘thoughtful action’? Is that like Smart Power?

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