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A Desensitized American Psyche

Americans can once again view the return of fallen soldiers, but will it matter?

This past Sunday, the media were allowed to cover the return of a fallen U.S. soldier for the first time in 18 years. The ban on coverage of such ceremonies, in place since it was imposed by the first Bush administration in 1991, was drafted under the pretenses of privacy and respect for the families of the dead. More recently though, the ban has been widely criticized as an attempt to mask the cost of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Politically speaking and for the sake of public awareness, many of us are glad to see this ban lifted. However, in a society that has already been desensitized to death and violence, and which revels in the public exposure of all things private, I think that it is possible that our opinions on the issue have less to do with indignation about two wars and more to do with our warped, Web 2.0 understanding of privacy.

During the Vietnam War, the nation’s first televised war, the American public was given essentially unrestricted access to how graphic and horrific war truly was. The propaganda newsreels of smiling soldiers and stereotyped enemies of WWII were replaced with the photographs, videos, and reports of embedded journalists, showing terrified young faces of American soldiers and piles of death wherever one looked.

Until that time, the public’s overall exposure to that kind of violence had been limited to things like comparably tame horror movies, historical books about war, and sensationalist news stories about gangsters. Although the American psyche has probably always been just as obsessed with violence as today, viewers before the Vietnam era wouldn’t be able to get their fix of it from film and television then like they can now.

When people saw the violence in Vietnam and the caskets coming home, the response was both shock and anger; it was these feelings that culminated in the peace movement that has been so emblemized in American history. What has changed since then?

Everything.

24/7 news stations, the internet, satellite communications, digital photography, and a film and TV rating system that goes from G to NC-17 and beyond have transformed the world and the way it consumes and interprets information. The kind of violence that once shocked the audience of the Vietnam era is now funneled in all day and everyday. We live in an America where people will pay 10 dollars to watch a “Final Destination” movie and have a good time; for a little more, you can get video games in which you can deal drugs and kill prostitutes. We can sign up for breaking news updates on our cell phones, so we never miss a car chase or a police standoff.

To say that Americans have become desensitized in the last 30 years is a cliché, but it’s true. This therefore raises the question: does the footage of caskets being pulled from cargo jets have the same effect that it once did? It will always be a painful, upsetting sight for those who see it, but perhaps it no longer can deeply touch a people who seem unmoved by anything short of a gun pressed to their head.

If it can’t truly have the effect of promoting public awareness anymore, then what does lifting the ban really prove? On one hand, I think there has been a populist (and justified) desire to reverse many of the restrictions on freedom of speech and press resulting from America’s last two wars. On the other hand, I think our present understanding of privacy has created a sense of entitlement to what is traditionally considered the utmost private and personal aspects of our lives.

Before the advent of digital cameras and the internet, photography was used for mostly personal reasons—pictures for a family photo album, for example. You might share the pictures with extended family or neighbors, but you didn’t leave the album in the local hole in the wall for everyone and their mother to see. Even the most invasive tabloid was limited by the necessity of sending a professional photographer to capture any newsworthy event.

These days, many of us voluntarily do the hard work for the media. CNN has a virtual army of millions of camera phone-wielding viewers across the globe. Even without the prompting of CNN’s iReporter, the public today feels a need to expose every tabloid-worthy corner of our private existence. We blog, we post our entire lives on Facebook or Myspace, we whine about personal problems on Twitter, and we can forward a personal email to anyone we want in a second. We are our own paparazzi, and we have trampled the entire concept of privacy. We don’t only willingly reveal ourselves, but we have also come to expect it and desire it of others.

This voyeuristic desire cannot help but influence our attitudes towards the returning of war dead. Do we really have the right to a moment that is so personally devastating to the friends and families of those lost? All egoism aside, would you really want the transfer of your body from the morgue to the funeral home televised? And our generation is perhaps the first in which this is not an entirely rhetorical question. With the bizarre public spectacle of Big Brother star Jane Goody’s death, the idea of a funeral webcast over MySpace seems ever closer.

The lifting of the ban is clarified with a clause that necessitates familial consent to film and photograph. This concession to privacy gives me hope that the lifting of the ban is a step forward instead of one backwards. Perhaps it will be those families who say “no” to the media that will truly catch the attention of an America that has forgotten what privacy means.

—Staff writer Andrew F. Nunnelly can be reached at nunnelly@fas.harvard.edu.