The first dead body I ever saw was in Egypt. I was on a school trip to Alexandria, and our bus approached what appeared to be a bad road accident. There were a few cars stopped in the left lane of the major pseudo-highway, and there were plastic water bottles scattered all over the road. Our bus slowly passed the accident, and when we thought it was finally behind us, there lay in the road a man, flung tens of metres away from the accident, apparently dead from what looked to be a major head wound. I remember the paralysing shock I felt. We all know that horrible things happen all the time, and statistics remind us how many people die every minute of every day while we go on with our lives, but this was different. This was the shell of a person who was just moments before was alive, and was now passing into the next world. It was emotional to see and I still can’t quite say why.
The second dead body I saw was also in Egypt, and also a victim of a car accident. It was on Qasr Al-Nil Bridge, in a car with friends going down to the Corniche. The traffic started to slow, and we all let out a collective sigh of annoyance and inconvenience. When we saw the traffic beginning to thin, I glanced out my window and saw another man, elderly, lying dead in the street. I felt an intense but fleeting sadness, but it was not quite the same experience as when I saw the first on the way to Alexandria. I could not help but begin to think to myself, “these things happen”.
On my way to work this morning, the traffic slowed again for no apparent reason, and again we found there was a car accident, luckily not fatal. We drove slowly by, as the other cars were curious too about what happened, and I saw a group of men helping to free one of the victims from the car. Thankfully, he was fine, but had a rather large open head wound. The next step was to immediately move the car out of the two left lanes and confine it to one, and we continued along. We didn’t say anything, and I didn’t feel the silence was from shock or gratitude for the man’s safety, but rather that it had become so mundane to see such things that it failed to provoke an emotional response, when a man could have just lost his life.
I recognise my luck to have not encountered a dead body before this, when I was already 26 years old. As I have lived here in Cairo and witnessed more (luckily non-fatal) car accidents, poverty, and routine violence, I realised that it was almost becoming normal; that I was getting used to it.
I discovered that what I was feeling was related to an idea of desensitisation, which is to say that violence has become such a regular occurrence that it no longer evokes an emotional response that might otherwise be considered healthy. Desensitisation to violence not only implies that people lose sight of the importance of human life, but also carries with it grave psychological implications for our own well-being. This is a problem that is often referred to when discussing the effects of abundant violence in the media, and is also the purview in which social science collects and analyses data: there is a major link between being routinely subjected to violence, even abstract, and significant psychological harm and aggression. Similarly, people lose their ability to empathise with fellow humans when the impact of violence is diminished.
photo: Buschman & Anderson. Comfortably Numb, 2009
With the current instability in the country, we hear on a near daily basis that people perished in car accidents or during political clashes. We read that a bomb went off, or a bomb was diffused. I find myself among those who hear such news, and have no response but to shrug my shoulders or even muster a muted or fleeting gasp or sign of condolence.
This sort of emotional numbness to violence can be positive. For example when medical students first encounter a dead body, they might faint or feel sick. Yet with time, they grow accustomed to the idea, as it is necessary for them to remain collected to carry out their work.
Yet for the rest of the world, the loss of empathy for each other is an isolating and negative quality. Sociopaths are universally categorised as apathetic to the feelings and lives of others.
In this case, we are forced to be spectators to habitual violence where, if we are fortunate, violence may not directly affect us, but it certainly does indirectly.