We Americans, spread out from sea to shining sea across this sprawling continent, have always had a hard time seeing what conflicts in foreign lands have to do with us. The crash of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine is the starkest demonstration imaginable of how instability anywhere threatens us all.
In case anyone didn't get it, The New York Times hammered the point home in its coverage from the scene of the wreckage. There was more than "twisted metal" to be seen in the wheat fields of Ukraine, Sabrina Tavernise reported. There were bodies: a woman in a black sweater "with blood streaming from her face"; a victim "naked except for a black bra"; a man "still in his socks but without pants." Torn bodies. Splayed bodies.
The Times did not see fit to allow readers to comment on Tavernise's story, but as one who has closely monitored reader reaction to graphic coverage of other tragedies, I am certain that many were appalled. For some, it's the thought of the victims' loved ones reading such descriptions that sickens.
For others, it's the thought of what it does to the rest of us: Depending on our temperaments, repeated exposure to such accounts either so upsets us that we tune out, so desensitizes us that we cease to be moved, or worse, so titillates us that an editor's warning about disturbing content makes us more likely to stay tuned than less. (I saw a couple of instances in the coverage of Flight 17 where, like a sensational headline that dupes us into reading a banal story, the warning at the start of a video clip was followed by rather tame images. The feeling was inescapable that the warning was designed to "sell" the clip to us, rather than protect us from it.)
Defenders of graphic accounts like Tavernise's say that the specific details force us to reckon with the meaning of the catastrophe: To paraphrase Sir Walter Scott's quote about fish and fishermen, it's not "smoldering wreckage" we're talking about here, it's men's (and women's, and children's) lives.
Or we hear that the details humanize the statistics. Learning that 298 people died doesn't move us. Hearing about their iPhones, their books, their parking tickets, their toiletries — "the things they carried," as Tim O'Brien called his powerful book about American soldiers in Vietnam — does. The victims are us, or could so easily have been us: people with plans, with loved ones to communicate with and debts to pay.
Inevitably, someone felt compelled to make a tasteless joke about Flight 17. In this case it was actor Jason Biggs. "Anyone wanna buy my Malaysia Airlines frequent flier miles?" he tweeted.
Folklorists and psychologists have been at pains to explain the function of such jokes, most notably when the Challenger space shuttle exploded in 1986. These are coping mechanisms, they say. Or as Lord Byron wrote, "If I laugh at any mortal thing, 'Tis that I may not weep."
But this interpretation may be too generous. Sure, it's possible that those whose first response to a tragedy is to make light of it do so because they can't come to grips with it emotionally. For all we know, though, they never even try. Mockery and transgression find so much favor in our culture that they have become default responses.
This brings us back to Tavernise's account of the wreckage site. If Biggs's tweet is evidence of a widespread tendency to treat every piece of news, however ghastly, as part of the passing show, such graphic witnessing may be just what's needed to snap us back into engagement with a world that has become far too small to hold at arm's length.
We may then ask: Which response to a tragedy is more insensitive, the graphic account or the joke? Which is more obscene?
Frank teaches journalism ethics at Penn State University and is the author of Newslore: Contemporary Folklore on the Internet.