Making Sense Out of Desensitization

Chances are that you're located in a place where violent crime occurs either (at best) occasionally or (at worst) frequently. And, if you keep up with the local news, you're probably also used to seeing headlines such as "Teen shot at football game" and "Man killed in attempted robbery." Sometimes these headlines barely register. Sometimes they're thought about and forgotten about as soon as you finish shaking your head. Sometimes even the ridiculousness of the situation --- i.e. "Man murdered by security guard while stealing bucket of crispy chicken from KFC" --- causes you to (slightly) chuckle to yourself in the middle of that head shake.

Either way, our responses are rarely (if ever) in scale with the gravity of the situation. This is for good reason. If we responded to the news of every shooting, every murder with the sense of sadness, despair, and anger it truly deserved, we'd be reduced to an never-ending mass of shiver, cry, and outrage. Instead, we steadily desensitize ourselves to what's going on around us to keep us functioning, to keep us moving, and the perpetually nonchalant response to perpetually heartbreaking news allows us to do that.

Now, I realize stating that we've become collectively numb to violence and death isn't exactly a new revelation. But, something happened to me last week that caused me to rethink this thought process. Basically, instead of being desensitized, I was actively desensitizing myself.

A 16 year old boy was shot and killed in the Pittsburgh area. After reading the short news story attached to the breaking headline, I assessed some of the facts present in the paragraphs --- i.e.: the shooting occurred in Garfield (one of the worst neighborhoods in the city), it took place at night, it involved a kid named "Ne'Ondre," etc --- and immediately drew my own conclusion:

"Tragic. Probably some robbery or drug deal gone bad or something."

You could make the argument that I wasn't wrong to make that judgment, that the context clues would have led any rational and honest person to make that same initial assessment, but doing so said more about me and my own fears than it did about Ne'Ondre. I wasn't concluding. I was hoping. I was hoping that his death was the result of him getting mixed up with the wrong crowd or, well, being the leader of that wrong crowd. I was hoping he tried to rob the wrong person or was targeted by certain wrong people because he was doing wrong things.

One way to cope with hearing about murders every other day is to assume that each of the people murdered somehow had it coming. It's a desensitization technique that passes immediate judgment on others while allowing you say things like "Well, if I just do the right thing, the 'good' thing, this won't happen to me." --- a thought process that alleviates the possible fear that it just may happen to you too. Basically, I was hoping that I could somehow separate myself from him and all the other headline protagonists.

But, as is often the case with assumptions, sometimes you're proven to be wrong. Very wrong.

From "Future 'was so bright for' for shooting victim Ne'Ondre Harbour"

"His only crime was being present at the location when shots rang out. He wasn't doing anything wrong, and tragically he was shot," Cmdr. Stangrecki said.

Wounded in the torso, he fled to Kincaid Street and North Atlantic Avenue, where he collapsed. He was taken to UPMC Presbyterian, where he died.

School staff at Pittsburgh Obama, where Ne'Ondre was an 11th-grader, described him as a "gentle giant" who was a "warm, caring young man with a great sense of humor." Student Assistance Program providers as well as additional grief counselors were dispatched to the school to assist students and staff in dealing with the tragedy.

Ne'Ondre was a standout offensive tackle and defensive tackle on the USO football team -- the merged team of students from Pittsburgh Milliones (University Prep), Pittsburgh Obama and Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy. And he was also a member of Pittsburgh Obama's wrestling and track teams.

Hearing about a life ending in such a sudden and senseless fashion has a way of forcing us to acknowledge and reassess our own tenuous mortality. It reminds me that it could have been me standing on that porch, or getting out of my car, or taking out my garbage. If that was me, there would have been a breaking news story that night or the next morning about a Black male murdered in some city neighborhood. And, there's no doubt in my mind that most of the people reading that headline --- people who have no idea who I am --- would have incorporated the same desensitization technique I used