Death and decorum

February 18, 2011

A city of Poughkeepsie Police Officer was shot and killed today.

Within an hour of the incident, I knew the officer’s name.

Not because the police department released his name at a press conference, or anything official like that. The police department had not yet even announced that the officer died. Nor was I directly notified by anyone in the department.

Rather, I was informed of his name, and his death, by my Facebook news feed. Someone had posted a status, “R.I.P”, followed by the officer’s name.

I didn’t know the officer at all, so learning his name, or that he died, didn’t affect me all that much – besides naturally feeling a pang of sadness for him and his family.

But then I thought to myself, what if I had known him? And what if the way I was informed of his death was thru a cool, curt “R.I.P” status on my FB feed? From a vaguely remembered FB “friend” with whom I rarely interact and barely know? What if the officer was my brother, or my father, or my son? What if I were his wife, or his mother? What if police had yet to notify me, or any other next-of-kin, of his death? How would I feel, if I read the name of a loved one, perhaps my most cherished love in the world, in a FB status line that declared him dead?

There’s a reason police don’t immediately release the names of the deceased. The delay gives the police enough time to notify the immediate family, and enough time for the family to share the tragic news with extended family and friends – in their own way and on their own terms. Most people consider this just basic human decency.

But it appears that in today’s world, basic human decency has been hastily shoved aside, by certain people’s insatiable obsession to be first to report the news, across instantaneous circuits like twitter and FB. I don’t doubt that these people are still human – that they still recognize, at some level, that murder is a sensitive tragedy, and that they are sympathetic to the victim and family. But this sympathy apparently doesn’t translate into decorum. It apparently doesn’t stop them from disposing of sensitivity in order to demonstrate just how much “in the know” they are.

I wonder if it ever crosses their minds, even for a second, that maybe it isn’t their place to report the victim’s name to the whole world? That maybe as a society we’ve developed more appropriate and respectable channels to relate such delicate news — and that these channels don’t include faceless pseudo-anonymous blurts on twitter?

Perhaps these people just don’t have the empathetic capacity to understand. So let me try to put it in perspective for them: Suppose you suddenly and unexpectedly found out today that the person you loved more than anyone on earth, the person you cherished and depended on, had been gunned down in the street. His life, brutally ended. Your life, painfully and ruthlessly changed forever. Upon hearing the news — so abrupt and shocking and unimaginably devastating — would your first reaction be to post it on twitter, for everyone in the world to digest in 140 chars or less?

I would presume, no. But maybe I’m presuming too much.

This week, while bloggers placed bets on whether society’s moral tolerance of homosexuality will progress or regress, a Rutgers freshman committed suicide days after his roommate secretly posted a webcam video of him having sex with another man.

This isn’t a typical blogging topic for me. But when I read about the tolerance bet, I felt annoyed by its senselessness, and literally a minute later I read about the Rutgers student, and felt dejected by the pointlessness of his death. And the juxtaposition of those two articles, and those two emotions, compelled me to write.

Let’s not waste time betting whether the progress of human equality will fall victim to a resurgence of Leviticus-fearing folks. Instead, let’s spend that time trying to teach people that intolerance is not just some game you play on a moral chessboard. It’s not just some emotionally detached debate. It’s not a bet you place at the sportsbook. Intolerance is a destructive force. It’s a deadly weapon. It has real victims. And everywhere it has ever existed in history, it has always been the enemy of peace.