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Surviving tele-trocities


NOT LONG ago, during the 8 p.m. broadcast, CNN showed the work of an amateur videographer who captured the assassination of Mexican presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio. Anchorwoman Susan Rook duly noted the clip's graphic content and advised viewer discretion. She was giving us a chance to rush the children from the room.

I was mixing salad dressing -- minding my own business -- and I felt the gut-twinge of mini-crisis: to look or not to look. I knew Colosio had been taken point-blank. A day or two earlier I had seen footage of the panicked crowd, but this was different: the nightly news is mostly aftermath -- if it isn't stationary rubble, it's sound bites and photo-ops. But here was the Actual Event, the Mexican Zabruder film.

I am one of those drivers who steadfastly refuse to slow down and rubberneck at highway disasters. I have contempt for those carnivalesque gawkers who want to take in the the twisted wreckage of glimpse battered bodies. I have to admit, though, I ** have seen John F. Kennedy shot over and over, at least a hundred times on film. I'm not innocent.

I looked. Countless heads were bobbing in a sea of murky color. A hand holding a gun seemed to swim around the heads. When the hand stopped a human head splashed into a spasm of red.

It was bad, but not so bad. My first response was a slight disappointment: You couldn't see it clearly.

It's pretty much a given as to how Visual Media -- television, movies and, to a lesser degree, photographs -- desensitizes us to the terrible actualities of catastrophic events. But there is a deeper issue. Since we aren't directly threatened, we respond -- we are trained to respond -- to the unfolding spectacle.

Horror becomes contained and conventionalized. The issues become aesthetic and the effect -- the very brief effect -- is emotional, usually reduced to the lowest sentimental denomination.

It's amazing how file footage of a tornado creeping across a plain seems so dull. Hollywood does tornadoes much better, but nothing ultimately bad happens: Dorothy gets to go somewhere over the rainbow and kill two witches.

After the tornado actually hits and the rubble is stationery, we get the human interest side of things. Obnoxious reporters prod victims into stating how it feels to lose everything: "What were your sensations upon seeing your house get blown away? What will you do now?" I sit there and watch, asking myself: How do people handle it? On the screen I see how they handle it. They cry. They accept the will of God. They look forward to the future. They even become heroic.

Remember the killer tornado that struck the Piedmont, Ala., church on Palm Sunday? The church's pastor lost her 4-year-old daughter in the disaster, but she still helped others.

Treating disaster as spectacle is as necessary as using water to make coffee. If you'regoing to get it down, it might as well taste good, if sometimes bitter. There is no way to absorb the unending cavalcade of human and natural disasters. There is no way to appropriately feel. Visual Media allows us to tiptoe to the edge of dread and then skip gaily away.

At 10 p.m., we were still tuned to CNN. We weren't really watching. Once again, Susan Rook warned us about the Colosio murder.

This time, my wife was in the room. She was sitting down reading the newspaper and half-watching the television. I told her she might not want to see this report. I said it was terrible and graphic. My wife hates violent movies. I was standing near the chair. I was a little surprised to find myself watching her watching the report. I thought she was above that sort of thing.

The sea of heads came back on. The hand with the pistol swam over to the head. I was ready to see the head explode a second time, but this time they stopped the film. My wife said nothing and glanced back down at the paper.

An unusual event had occurred. Apparently somebody at CNN reversed a decision. Maybe there were phone calls from outraged viewers or even from sponsors. Maybe Jane Fonda found it disgusting. It was not like CNN to hold back. There must be a story in there somewhere. But since it would be a very quiet story with no heads blown off, I'm sure I'll never find out what happened.

John Wenke is a professor of English at Salisbury State $l University.

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