A couple of weeks ago I found myself alone in front of the TV with my hand hovering over the remote. To click or not to click? I clicked, terminating the movie I was watching at the one-hour mark.
“The Killing Fields” is a 1984 Oscar-winning fictionalized account of real events during the Cambodian genocide. I had just reached the point in the story when Dith Pran, a character both lovable and worthy of respect, had to leave the protection of the embassy to fend on his own against the Khmer Rouge.
I knew that violence, sadism, hunger and death would follow in the second half of the movie, because that was the reality of Cambodia in the years 1975-79, and I couldn’t watch.
Until the next morning, which dawned light and cheery, and I felt strong enough to try again. I finished the movie and watched a second time in order to listen to the director’s commentary. However, I saw a few scenes only through a curtain of my fingers with my eyes half-shut.
I’ve made choices about upsetting movies many times in my life, often choosing not to watch. Here’s another choice, which I faced the same week.
After receiving an “alert” on my smart phone, I turned on the TV and caught early footage of the bombing at the Boston marathon. At that point, every newscast was playing the same tape, over and over. Big puff of smoke. Runner falls down on the street. Woman’s face contorts. People are loaded onto stretchers or placed in wheelchairs, and the voiceover tells us we’re not seeing the worst cases. People died. People lost limbs.
In the following days, I turned on the TV many times, and at one point I remained glued to it for two hours watching police pursue the Tsarnaev brothers while the city of Boston waited in suspended animation. At various times I caught other scenes: heart-broken relatives and family members, photographs of the dead. For some reason the open, gentle face of the murdered MIT police officer sent pain through me every time I saw it.
Watching tragedy affects us in a variety of ways. My daughter told me she made the mistake of checking news before bedtime and couldn’t sleep. I thought I was handling things well until, after a few days, my stomach hinted otherwise.
During this same period of time, I ran into friends and acquaintances who were also watching coverage on TV. Some chose not to do so. Some turned to newspapers. Several talked openly about their struggle.
Considering all the advice that fills books and Websites, it amazes me that I’ve never encountered advice on how much tragedy to watch.
The dilemma is complicated. Some people have no choice: the TV is always on in their house. Others have young children and turn it off. But for people who can choose freely like me, how much should we watch?
Two ideas war within me.
The first says that there is a moral choice to be made. When our countrymen are suffering, it’s not right to click off the television. Be it flood or killing or fire, we should care about others and sometimes get involved. On the other hand, I can’t send money to every cause, or every disaster, so I often find myself watching but doing nothing else.
Does this take me over an invisible line to voyeurism? I don’t feel good about that.
My second issue involves health. What is the healthy response to horror? Surely we shouldn’t overdose. I’m reading a lot about the Cambodian genocide now, but I’m not studying the Holocaust simultaneously or even paying much attention to dysfunction in Congress.
Isn’t it our responsibility to keep ourselves healthy enough to be a positive force in the lives of family, friends and community? No one wants a false optimist, but like others, I’m drawn to people who are balanced, or maybe even tip a bit toward the optimist side. Can I watch every compelling tragedy unfold and be that kind of person? I don’t think so.
I try to be gentle with myself as I struggle to decide whether to turn the TV on or off. I’m glad I finished “The Killing Fields.” It was a heartfelt movie, featuring a Cambodian physician-turned-actor (Haing S. Nor) who suffered under the Khmer Rouge himself, a man whose performance I’ll never forget.
I went a little too far with the Boston manhunt, watching with a sort of distanced curiosity that is better suited to movie-viewing than to real life. I stopped.
Now a tornado has devastated people in Oklahoma. Faced with this tragedy so soon after the marathon, should I turn on the TV? Do I risk “compassion fatigue?” If so, does that make me a lesser person?
I have to work this out on my own.
Marion Franck is a columnist for the Davis Enterprise. She is a part-time resident of El Dorado County.