Have movies desensitized us to real tragedy?

Daily Arts Writer
Published September 19, 2001

"This is something you see in a movie."

Last Tuesday, the nation was shocked to turn on their television sets and see horrific images of destruction, disaster, and tragedy without the comfort of a movie preview surrounding them. These images were not computer graphics they were really happening. But how long did it take most people for this to really sink in?

Eyewitnesses and others who helplessly watched the recent tragic events live on television could not help but express disbelief at what their eyes were conveying. The images of the World Trade Center towers being struck and later collapsing have in the past seemed more suitable for the world of big-budget action movies than for real life news shows.

Going to the movie theaters every weekend, viewers see people die. They see buildings, ships, and airplanes blow up with people in them. Sometimes, we even cheer when these events occur. However, most of the time we just gape in awe at these amazing, fantastical images presented on the screen. This is entertainment. Instead of worrying about all the loss of life in these special effects, audiences stare in astonishment at these events, which could surely never happen. Yes, the White House blew up in "Independence Day," but that is just science fiction, right? The White House will last forever. Audiences have also seen terrorists hijack the President"s plane in "Air Force One" and terrorists rampage New York City in films like "The Siege" and "The Peacemaker." As a result of these films, the images that are now playing on TV stations everywhere are not as extraordinary as they could be.

Destroying popular monuments and buildings in films has become a trend in Hollywood. The World Trade Center and the Pentagon are two of the most visible American monuments that have not received any abuse in recent disaster films. But it is (or was) possible that a film in the future could have had an image of the World Trade Center imploding or the Pentagon being attacked. In fact, the setting for the finale for "Men In Black 2," currently in production, was not only supposed to be the World Trade Center, but these scenes had already been shot (The ending for this film has since been changed and will be re-shot).

Now, the question being asked is if seeing buildings blow up in movies almost every month has desensitized people to the real life images of this tragedy and others like it? Never has such a national disaster had more images than the recent attack on America. This time there are not just pictures of the aftermath and of the rescue effort. And there is not just one piece of footage of what happened like in the case of the JFK assassination and the Zapruder film. This time there were a myriad of amateur photographers shooting the incident with their video cameras. On the day of the incidents, CNN and other stations kept showing viewers new images and angles of the planes entering the buildings and of the eventual collapse. We saw video from people standing at the foot of the towers as debris comes rushing down upon them. Then they would show a new angle of the crash, but they would slow it down so we could examine every split second before impact. America watched on in horror and awe. These images told the brutal truth of what happened that day and they were indisputable. Yet, watching these pictures many people could still not believe what was happening, and they did not want to. Could it be a bad dream? Could it be scenes from a new movie? But that fateful answer kept filling their heads, "No."

Seeing images of violence and death on movie screens and on cable TV has made these pictures almost common place for Americans, especially younger people who have never experienced or witnessed such a national tragedy before. However, a tragedy of this magnitude must elicit deep emotions in any viewer. Young people, like college students all over the country, have only seen images of destruction on this kind of level while at the movies. Moreover, no matter how many films you have watched, you have probably never seen horrific images this real before. No, the images do not contain blood or gore but the loss of life is still evident and undeniable. That is not just an empty plane entering an empty building, people"s lives are at danger, and people knew this while watching. While it may be true that countless Americans have become desensitized to many images that appear on the news everyday, when a tragedy of this scale occurs no one can remain unresponsive. You cannot discount these events as normal news. Unlike the images that are viewed in America"s theaters and are easily forgotten days later, the sight of planes colliding into these towers will never leave the minds and memories of everyone who sat by their TV"s last Tuesday.

The future of America and the actions it will take against the people responsible for the attacks is in question. At the same time, the future of cinema and the images it portrays may also be in limbo. There will now have to be a certain sensitivity and self-censorship in Hollywood movies not only to help their films be successful but also out of respect for all those who lost their lives in this disaster. This carefulness will not last forever and Hollywood will ultimately return to showing extreme acts of violence that may draw comparisons to the recent events though this may seem insensitive, it is actually just the country moving forward and recovering.

While remembering the past events and the people involved is very important, it cannot dominate America"s thoughts forever. Going to the movies will be a diversion for people and a way to enjoy life again. The movies have always been an escape for people from their daily troubles. During these difficult times, they may become even more important for many Americans as people try to put their grief behind them and spend enjoyable times with their families. There will be entertainment, again.