Every day, tragedy is televised from around the world, saturating the news with graphic images of death. It seems, however, that the respect shown to those who have died is contingent upon who they are and where they are from. Death is said to be the great equalizer, but that is certainly not true. Even after death, the way people’s bodies are treated and the way their deaths are portrayed drastically differs depending on who they are. Some people are remembered in thought, while others have their lifeless corpses splayed on television screens. Vivid images of death and gore repeat and circulate with the hourly news. I wonder why this difference exists: why is it that non-white bodies are shown gratuitously after a tragedy, yet the bodies of white Europeans and Americans are never shown, as the media chooses to focus on vigils and tributes instead?
Is it because we just don’t need to see their deaths to feel sadness and pain? Do we place more importance on certain lives than we do others? If just announcing the death of a white American or European has an equivalent (or even stronger) effect as showing a picture of a dead body of someone else, it is clear that white lives are valued more by the media and the world. The deaths of white people are less abstract and are felt more immediately. People feel pain at the knowledge that innocent lives were lost — they do not need to see the mangled remains and physical evidence of death to feel something. This sympathy, however, does not extend to others. Why did it take a picture of a drowned toddler’s body circulating on the Internet to awaken people to the migrant crisis that had been happening for years? Thousands of Aylan Kurdis died unnoticed — easily dismissed because the idea of a Syrian child dying alone was not enough to provoke a visceral reaction. There had been no mass movements, no political pressure, or public discussion about accepting refugees prior to this visual reminder of death. The deaths of non-white or Western people are often treated as a given, and their lives and deaths are distanced and treated clinically. When certain demographics’ lives are less valued, it takes gore, shock and violence for people to feel.
Is it because only certain groups are entitled to a peaceful death? People of color are exploited even after their deaths. Universal human rights such as privacy and dignity are violated when their dead bodies are sprawled across screens as spectacle for the public to consume. When in 2013, it was discovered that Bashar Al Assad had been using chemical weapons to kill civilians, subsequent news coverage included pictures of rows and rows of dead bodies lying on the ground, their lifeless faces identifiable in full view. Adults and children whose lives were stolen had their peace and dignity stolen too as the world ate up their bodies with its eyes, showing no respect to their lives or identities.
After natural disasters around the world, we see bodies being pulled out of rubble, unburied and mangled. People of color are not given the liberty of dying in peace — their bodies are not given to their families, but are shared with the world in the most heinous way. They serve as shock factor and clickbait. White people, on the other hand, are respected; their bodies are never shown on the screens and used to suck in viewers. Instead, tributes to their deaths are shown. The news focuses on people paying their respects.
Or do these images serve as a reminder? In an act of violence, images of death are repeated, inflicting trauma, to remind certain people just how little their lives are valued and to serve as implicit threat. Communities are not left to mourn in peace; instead they are constantly reminded of the pain and loss of what has been ripped away. When white people in America are shot, videos of their deaths are not publicized. Yet when black men are murdered by police, looping videos of their deaths replay on the news, proving they are respected neither in life nor after death. Mothers have to watch their sons and daughters die over and over again, the traumatic footage disrupting efforts to heal. Black communities constantly are subjected to reminders of this violence, reminding them just how easy it is for these acts of violence to happen — that it could be them next.
All these factors are complex; too complex to unpack in a short column, but they all come into play and contribute to a certain outcome: Non-white and non-Western people are constantly dehumanized. Their deaths become stories and statistics the world is numb to. Race, socioeconomic status and artificial borders affect the respect people are given. Well-meaning statements that react to violence such as “I can’t believe this could happen in America, not Iraq or Palestine” further normalize violence and dehumanize victims (both here and abroad), even without meaning to.
Respect is shown through what is depicted — calm vigils and silent mourning — and through what is not: bodies of the deceased are given privacy and family members are left alone to mourn and heal. No such respect is extended to many. We see gruesome and sickening pictures of their deaths, we become numb to the problems that cause these tragedies, and we ignore them, because when death and injustice are just a picture, and not a thought, making the problem go away is as easy as just changing the channel.