Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Another day, another tragedy

It is possible to avert your eyes, but it is impossible not to be utterly repulsed by the violence visited upon fellow human beings in our neighbourhood and across the globe. Acheh. Darfur. Najaf. Iraq. Gaza. West Bank. Beslan. Another day, another tragedy.

Neil Postman complained how the fragmented juxtaposition of news and frivolous reports (compressed into 60-second sound bytes set in a ‘pseudo-context’) on TV blunt the thrust of reality. Without exposition, you lose the point, and so risk losing sight of what’s significant. It’s all reduced to entertainment, you see.

That was before the age of the Internet.

Now, we’re not only amusing ourselves to death, we are drowning in data. What’s happening today is a massive overload of information in print, sound, and images...undistilled, unfiltered, and inexhaustible, in all their callous abandon (Don’t some people love this excess!) Every catastrophe, decapitation, mutilation, desolation, disintegration, and anguish, numbered and served in heartrending and blood-spattered minutiae.
42 million with HIV/AIDS
8,000 die of AIDS daily
4 million displaced in Sudan
2,500 die daily in Darfur
10 million street children in Africa
34 Shiite militants killed by joint Iraq-US forces
330 killed in Beslan; more than half are children
16 bus passengers in Beersheba killed in double suicide attacks
14 Palestinians killed in Israeli retaliatory attacks
1,041 coalition soldiers dead (919 Americans) in Iraq as at 4 August
425 inmates die in police custody between June 2002 and July 2003 in Malaysia
5,517 snatch thefts in first 5 months of 2004 in Malaysia
3,228 individual robberies in Malaysia in 2003
8,060 violent crimes reported in Malaysia in 2003
Numbers are anonymous. But put a picture to a report, it hits closer home. Add a name to a face, and it’s personal.

On the other hand, you cross a threshold and you just don’t care or don’t want to care anymore. Until it involves yourself, that is. Our capacity to register or process the horror and pain is so seared, can you blame anyone for their indifference? Say, we just want to get on with life, you know. Working memory runs on selective attention, ticking off on a kind of neurological slate what to prioritise, what to retain and what to discard. If the brain were not selective in what it processes, it would be near impossible to maintain sanity. Or live normally.

How does one put some distance between the carnage and one’s own personal space without giving in to compassion fatigue?

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