04/22/2013 03:51 pm ET Updated Jun 22, 2013

Why I Will Never Really See the Boston Marathon Bombing Video


I haven't watched any videos of the chaos at the Boston Marathon.

No, I don't live in a cave, nor am I a video-hating Luddite. No matter how often I click on the links, the videos never play. My cellphone experiences some sort of quirk that refuses to load linked videos in news stories, and while I have often considered updating apps and firmware to fix the problem, I never will.

I have also not sought out more reliable video streams -- television, computer or tablet. I have not stared softly into the face of Anderson Cooper or Savannah Guthrie as they speak in the somber tones of carefully modulated emotional affect at this, a time of national crisis.

No, I haven't seen the video of the chaos at the Boston Marathon. I have also never viewed video images from Newtown, or Oklahoma City, or Waco, or most other tragedies of the last two decades. For Newtown, in particular, my two young daughters made it difficult for me to watch any of the news coverage.

In most cases, though, I have another reason: It's not general coverage of a tragedy that I avoid but particular videos of specific violent acts, endlessly repeated on the news or, in the current moment, available endlessly on demand.

9/11/01: I have just moved to the Chicago area in my first year as an English professor at Lake Forest College, and my wife is still in the New York metro area at a weekly magazine. She joins me one month later, bringing the television and most of our belongings. For now, the occupants of my apartment consist of a futon, a radio on the floor and a rolling chair that I ride back and forth between the two. Therefore, the news of the day arrives by telephone as my wife watches the fire from across the Hudson, and over the radio airwaves.

Students in my 9 a.m. composition course tell me that the events are not "real" to them, except that they cannot reach East Coast contacts with cellphones. Faculty members gather in a lounge to watch, and I follow, soon after my classes, curious to view the destruction of the Twin Towers.

I must have entered in a video lull, because the television shows various talking heads and pundits and commentators discussing the events that everyone else has already seen. One of the news people finally teases a replay of the video clips. Suddenly I remember 1986 and leave before the towers fall again.

1/28/86: I do not leave the room on Jan. 28, 1986, because I am in school and am not allowed to do so, when our sixth-grade class gathers around the 19-inch television to view the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger. When, after 73 seconds, the shuttle becomes a ball of flame and smoke, I feel the heat radiating out from the screen and into the always-tense jaw of the social studies teacher.

He is frozen, speechless, while his charges aren't sure how to react. Some students turn away, and one student laughs nervously. No one knows what to feel exactly, and neither the newscaster nor the teacher, both in shock, is offering viable models.

And then, before long, we react to the trauma of the video explosion. We watch it in every class that follows. In slow motion. After what seems like hours of this, I try to mentally reverse the images: Smoke condenses into nothing; the fire reduces its reach until it bathes the shuttle in a corona of light; the fire disappears inside the Challenger or returns to the heart of the sun, whence I imagine it comes.

It never works, of course. And my imagined reversal is a reaction to the repetition, which has quickly become too much. Christa McAuliffe and the other astronauts burn again, always and forever dying, on endless auto-repeat. This, for me, becomes the only image associated with the word "Challenger," even these many years later.

I wish I could picture those people and not merely their death.

The prescient futurist J. G. Ballard, in his 1988 short story "The Secret History of World War III," details how the world never learns about the short Third World War because it has been conditioned to focus only on the constant screen crawl detailing the vital signs of President Ronald Reagan, now in his third term, as a salve to the country's suffering. When Ronnie stays healthy, the country stays healthy, and yet for Ballard, the most abominable atrocities occur in the spaces below the media.

The implication is also that the power of the communal media image blunts individual feeling. Today I'm amazed at how events have developed in alignment with and often behind the resources of social networks. Many people using the tools of the 21st century made positive contributions toward identifying the suspects in the Boston bombings.

Yes, there is power in video and image, yet there is also the danger that the image may overtake emotion and thus produce a feeling in the viewer of eventual detachment.

The pain and the tragedy suffered by those in Boston, or in Newton, and by those connected to these events is real (read a fantastic essay at Razorcake from Jim Ruland about his link to a Newtown victim), but it is real in so many different ways for each person touched by the events that no image of an explosion may fully bring it to bear.

When I read a news story or some other written report composed by a writer or a team of writers, subjective, flawed, sometimes beautiful, I am reminded of this fragile subjectivity, because it is embedded in the nature of the medium: the words are crafted and arranged.

Words show their seams, and in their spaces I may find the space to empathize as best I can.

Conversely, in the video image, before the tape of legs flying off the victims, I worry that I will not be able to feel much of anything beyond the power of the jaw-dropping spectacle itself.

So, in order that I may feel, at least for now, at least for me, I must choose to look away.