Warning: Gruesome details describedRecently I received an e-mail about a huge grizzly bear that was killed in Alaska. Twelve feet 6 inches at the shoulder, weighing more than 1,600 pounds, it had killed a couple people - it's last meal a human.
Three photos accompanied the brief story. One was of the man who shot the bear, holding a bear paw the size of a catcher's mitt. The second picture was the same young man crouched next to the slain bear. The man seemed tiny next to the mound of bear head and shoulders, which seemed as massive as the rear of our Dodge van. Obviously the bear was huge - apparently a world record.
Those pictures were interesting and informative, but the third and final photo has haunted me. It was the fresh remains of a bow hunter who had encountered the bear just before it was killed. It took me a while to figure out the photo. It was a torso, that's for sure, because a groin area with genitals was clearly visible. Attached to this was something long and stringy that I eventually realized was a thighbone with all the flesh eaten off, with an intact calf and athletic-shoed foot. This was the left leg. No right leg remained, and it appeared that the buttocks were gone also. The photo luckily didn't take in the shoulders, arms or head of the victim.
There was no warning that any of the photos would be so gruesome - just "read the brief story before looking at the photos ... The last photo is graphic"-which seemed a mild admonition since all photos are graphic by definition. Yet this was the most grisly photo I've ever seen. That's saying something, given that when I was a child my x-ray technician mother occasionally brought home technical journals that included photos of tumors, deformities and surgeries.
Many questions have followed me in the days since I viewed these photos. First, why was the third photo sent? To reinforce our fears about one of the few animals that occasionally kills a human? To illustrate just how powerful this animal truly was? Or merely to shock?
I thought about propriety. How is it that elements of our society are angry about published photos of our military people when prisoners of war, yet other elements of the same culture felt no compunctions about circulating a photo of a person ripped apart by a grizzly? Were there no thoughts of the victim's family's feelings? Someone would have to positively identify the body, but should every relative and friend be burdened with the experience? Even in gory murder trials, rarely are photos of the victims widely circulated. Is there any redeeming social value in circulating such a photograph? It was neither particularly educational nor entertaining.
Then I had a question directed at myself. Obviously, even though I didn't seek out such material, why didn't I immediately reject it? Why did I keep looking, both shocked and curious, like the proverbial driver rubbernecking as she passes a traffic accident? I even enlarged the photo on the computer screen so I could figure out the mangled body, get a sense of what had happened, while hoping the poor man was dead or at least unconscious when the bear literally ate him.
But there could be redeeming social value, education, in similarly disturbing photos. For example, what would happen if we Americans were to see a photo a day, or once a week, of the mangled body of a victim of war - I don't care from which side? What if we were to see a photo a day of a person dying from malnutrition?
What if we were to see a photo a day of the wounded bodies of people tortured by goons trained at Ft. Benning's School of the Americas (now called Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation) - a facility that trains military and police from South and Central America in methods of torture not allowed for use on our own citizens? How about photos of Iraqi children with birth defects from depleted uranium?
There are photos of all these things - the real, human impacts of war, poverty, and torture. But those who control our mass media are too politic, think the American people can't handle it. And they're right. We can't, we won't. One of the lessons of Vietnam was that once the public began seeing graphic evidence of the real horrors, they wouldn't stand for it.
Victoria Stoppiello is a free lance writer from Ilwaco, where she's enjoyed a relatively protected life.