The day began with a video of a four-year-old girl in pink hair beads witnessing the death of her mother's boyfriend at the hands of police. That was enough horror for one day in any universe. But then it ended, less than 24 hours later, with video of police officers being shot on the streets of Dallas, at least some of which was broadcast, with no warning, on live television. Two snuff movies for a numb world.
"The camera is the eye of history," Mathew Brady said, and he was right, of course. The camera has provided evidence of the world's worst impulses, from his own pictures of bloody Civil War battles to the liberation of concentration camps at the end of the Second World War to torture at Abu Ghraib to the ongoing violence by police toward African-American men. But Brady laboured with his bulky cameras and plates to make even one picture; he couldn't imagine a world that churns out, watches and forgets millions of moving images every day, many of them unimaginably violent.
I didn't think I'd ever be able to forget that footage of four-year-old Dae'Anna, briefly glimpsed in her mother Diamond Reynolds' live-streamed Facebook video. Ms. Reynolds filmed the aftermath of the police shooting of her boyfriend, Philando Castile, at a traffic stop in Minnesota. You can see Mr. Castile dying, in perpetuity, all over the Internet, tagged with almost comically ineffective warnings: "Graphic violence! 18+" As her mother sits handcuffed and distraught, you can hear Dae'Anna offer a four-year-old's heartbreaking words of comfort: "It's OK. I'm right here with you."
No, I didn't think I'd forget that, but then I also didn't think I'd forget the video of Alton Sterling being shot by police in a Baton Rouge parking lot, or Eric Garner choking, "I can't breathe!" or Tamir Rice in that playground. But each of them fades as the mind's hard drive makes room for a new bit of outrage, and by the time police were being shot on the streets of Dallas on Thursday night, I had one eye on Twitter and one on the TV and it barely seemed real at all. In the words of witnesses to every catastrophe in the past century, "It seemed like a movie."
Well, now that darkest prophecy has come true: It doesn't just seem like a movie, it is a movie. And the danger, of course, is that we become so numb that we start regarding these videos as banal, mundane diversions, possibly even as entertainment, and not as evidence of a monstrous tumour that is choking off blood to the body politic. Two years ago I couldn't have watched any of those videos; perhaps you couldn't either. Now I watch them at my desk, drinking coffee. The nightly news used to carry "warning, graphic violence" advisories in front of disturbing footage, a concept that now seems as quaint as the nightly news itself.
These videos could, in the best possible world, open Americans' eyes to the cancer of race hatred and gun violence in their midst. In the best possible world, viewers might look at a four-year-old girl in a red T-shirt in the back of a car where a black man lies bleeding to death from gun wounds and think: This has got to stop. They might look at the footage of a 37-year-old black man wrestled to the ground and shot by police for the crime of selling CDs, and the subsequent video of his sobbing 15-year-old son calling "Daddy," and think: What led us to this place? Where is the path out? Or they might think, "another day at the office," and swipe to the next video in their feed.
Or, worse, these pictures will become propaganda as each "side" – as if chaos has sides – seeks to buttress the righteousness of their positions. Instead of seeing the waste and futility in the corpse of a murdered cafeteria supervisor or a police officer, they only see further ammunition for a war. This is not far-fetched. On a day bracketed by those blood-drenched videos, former U.S. congressman Joe Walsh sent out a tweet that threatened the President and called for a race war. He deleted it, but that's futile. The Internet has an elephant's memory.
"Ever since cameras were invented in 1839, photography has kept company with death," Susan Sontag writes in her book Regarding the Pain of Others. This is the crux of the problem: A photo can be reproduced infinitely, but it evokes a true feeling of horror only once or twice in the same viewer. After that, numbness creeps. Ms. Sontag writes, "The image as shock and the image as cliché are two aspects of the same presence."
As she notes, warfare and the technology that chronicles it march in step: The panoramic shots of the Crimean War, the quicker-loading cameras that showed the intimate cruelty of the Spanish Civil War, the television cameras bringing Vietnam into the living room. What would she say, if she were alive, about the baffling speed and invasiveness of the technology documenting the wars on America's streets?
We have no map for these interactions. We're sailing blind into margins marked "here be dragons." By the time we do have a map, it will be obsolete.
It's tempting to look away but now of all times, it's a luxury no one can afford.