The Dirty Sport of Human Trauma By Tracey Barnett ©March 2011
Arie Smith’s Aspergers syndrome compels him to collect light fittings. In the early days of the Christchurch quake, he is arrested for stealing a fixture and two bulbs. He becomes “the face of looting”, until a follow up article reveals his Aspergers-triggered addiction. His lawyer says police beat him during his arrest.Today I have three stories, followed by just one question: What’s missing?
His family acknowledge what he did was wrong. Most would agree.
Talkback host Michael Laws starts a discussion on whether having a psychological disorder can ever be an excuse for a crime, raising an important question.
However, what he writes veers into very different terrain. “In all disasters, the rubble attracts rats,” Laws’ column begins.
Laws likens Arie Smith to a rodent. Focusing on Smith’s looks, Laws reduces Smith to almost inhuman scale, “In fact, the published photos accentuated such feral features—an unusual angularity offset by a blackened eye and the demeanor of one who spends much of his life in the darkness.”
If Smith’s Aspergers compulsions change this story’s equation, Laws doesn’t see it. “Smith has Asperger’s. Big deal…So he had a compulsion. Many people do. But they don’t take advantage of others’ misery or exploit a natural disaster to satisfy a compulsion.”
He concludes with a call for more physical violence. Alluding to allegations that Smith was roughed up in police custody, Laws applauds it, “In the end, justice has been done [to Smith], blackened eye and all. Now let’s similarly identify the other Christchurch looters and mete out similar justice.”
Story number two: A 17-year veteran war correspondent, Lara Logan, gets separated from her film crew and guards during protests in Egypt’s Tahrir Square. She is surrounded by a mob of 200 men, stripped, whipped with flagpoles, and fist-punched while the crowd chants “Jew, Jew,” [Logan is not Jewish].
After a sustained beating of up to 30 minutes, a group of Egyptian women throw their bodies on top of hers to keep her from being raped. She is hospitalized for five days.
Initial press reports state only that she had been the victim of a “brutal and sustained sexual assault”. The blogosphere lights up.
What is discussed? Logan’s “hotness” and past love life.
A New York University fellow and journalist, Nir Rosen, tweets, “Lara Logan had to outdo Anderson” [CNN’s Anderson Cooper was roughed up by protesters].
Rosen tweets, “Jesus Christ, at a moment when she is going to become a martyr and glorified we should at least remember her role as a major war monger” and, “Look, she was probably groped like thousands of other women, which is still wrong…”.
Outcry followed his tweets. He apologized—sort of, “ah f*ck it, I apologize for being insensitive…but I’m rolling my eyes at all the attention she will get.”
Story number three: US Muslim Congressman Keith Ellison’s voice breaks near tears as he testifies before a Congressional hearing on American Muslim radicalization. Some see the hearings as an important security issue, others as new McCarthyism.
Ellison recalls a 23-year-old Muslim paramedic who died trying to save others in the Twin Towers on 9/11. His family had to withstand published rumors at the time that the paramedic was a terrorist. Later he was exonerated.
The clip of Ellison’s tearful testimony spreads widely. Kevin Eder of the Media Research Center writes, “Pardon me while I hurl!” Another website issues a “vomit alert”. Some conservatives call it a show.
At a time when it would have been appropriate and politically astute to acknowledge a much maligned, hurting Muslim community in America, Ellison’s political opponents doubled-down. Mockery was easier than acknowledging Muslim’s pain.
In each story, there was another trauma after the initial trauma; the moment someone’s ordeal is reduced to deliberate sport. There are three real, private people behind these stories, despite the public discourse.
I never used to believe empathy had a political affiliation, as the domain of ‘liberal bleaters’. Now I’m not so sure.
When did it become acceptable to describe a disabled man as a feral rat, to condemn a brutally assaulted war correspondent for her “hotness”, or dismiss a Muslim American Congressman’s tears as lies? Nobody is calling it what it is, socially accepted bigotry.
Misanthropy is getting dressed up as commentary—and it sells. Pain isn’t just fair game, it’s profit.
Demonize the fragile and the fallen and watch your ratings spike. Squawk about the line of decency being crossed and feed their success. What is lost in all the shouting is the human face suffering at the center of the story.
If you can’t accord some respect for their hurt, then shut up.
Today, as we set aside time to officially mourn all that has been lost in Christchurch, a day set against even more impossible tragedy in Japan, take a breath. This, of all days, is a day to remember to respect someone else’s pain.
I think they used to call it—compassion.