Sunday, July 29, 2007

Living with Death

“It could have been anyone.”

James Fry, KNXV photojournalist covering the death of four colleagues in Phoenix, 27 July 2007

For yet another fleeting moment, the reality of violent, sudden death starkly intrudes on daily life. We recoil at the instant tragedy, at the unexpected change in what was otherwise a normal day in civilian America. When death and violence come front and center, we chillingly see our own mortality, how quickly life evaporates, leaving lifeless bodies in a pile of smoking debris..

What always amazes me is how surprised and shocked everyone is at such events. It’s as if their entire world is threatened, that somehow these events should not occur. But they always do. I am always saddened and sometimes angered by tragic events but I am never surprised. I’m not saying I can predict events but I know history and how human intelligence, behavior and the ever present chance for error has often created catastrophic results. I don’t expect that unfortunate trend to change in my lifetime.

This fatalism has been with me since Vietnam where I encountered a whole new level of reality, a reality where I might very well end up dead. I saw it happen to others and knew what could happen to any of us at any time. Not just from VC and NVA but our own selves: that many Americans combined with that much explosive material in an uncertain, difficult environment is almost a certain formula for self-inflicted injury. At least in my experience. I wasn’t safe anywhere. The uncertainty and wariness became part of a normal day.

Ever since, my normal day has always included the possibility of death. Besides, people die every day. One day will be my turn. During a high profile tragedy like Friday’s chopper collision or even 9-11, when the rest of the nation suddenly discovers death, I see the destruction, the shock and fear and think, “Well, of course.” I’m not sure if combat impaired my ability to empathize with others in a difficult time or if it taught me to think past fear.

If nothing else, I can say that I am not afraid of death. I’ve lived with it for almost 40 years. Not death as a fact of life but death as the certain, possibly imminent, prospect of my own personal oblivion. Vietnam introduced me to death in a way that I’d not previously understood and have never forgotten. I’ve lived with that understanding ever since. So when I see people upset and shocked over the episodic violence and death in our otherwise calm, secure lives, I say, “Welcome to the Boonies.” I don’t mean to be callous about the event or peoples’ emotions. It’s just nothing new.

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Blogger Jim said...

Well said.

I remember seeing pigs go berserk and start humping each other during a slaughter, especially surreal as the crack of the .22 pistol set a rhythm.

Much of what passes for "journalism" reminds me of those pigs humping while watching other pigs get shot, knowing their turn is next.

Real fear.

9:12 AM  
Blogger cile said...

Very well put, Mark. I think you do see past the veils that we - by force of habit or will, I don't know which - maintain. I think it is to our detriment to not cultivate bravery and awareness. Thanks for the reminder.

9:57 PM  
Blogger moderate said...

...fortunately...or unfortunately as you wish...we both learned the same lessons over there. Life is...well... fatal, isn't it.

9:17 AM  

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