Fred Niedner: We’re wired to look — and look away — from what disturbs us
October 28, 2011 5:38PM
Updated: November 30, 2011 8:02AM
Mysterious instincts reside somewhere in the primitive parts of our brains, or as we say nowadays, we’re hard-wired to do some pretty weird stuff.
As Exhibit A, consider the lengthy queue in which Libyans waited for a chance to view close up the bloodied, frozen corpse of Moammar Gadhafi on display in a food market freezer. For a generation, Gadhafi had ruled like a god over a nation that had no institutions or traditions besides those that focused on him. In the end, however, this larger-than-life figure sought refuge in a culvert and cowered before his captors as they taunted, abused and finally shot him. A rat, they declared him, and no more.
Perhaps people needed to line up so they could see and believe, once and for all, this emperor had no clothes. In truth, he’d never been bigger than any of them.
We relish opportunities to make that point about our enemies. In biblical times, centuries before the Romans practiced crucifixion, victorious armies impaled defeated kings and princes upon a city wall. Ordinary people would mutilate the Great One’s corpse. Children pondered the scene while dogs and birds of prey cleaned up the mess.
A voice inside me gave thanks last week that we have moved beyond such primitive rituals. Then I opened my copy of Newsweek magazine, and there he was, the battered and dead Mr. Gadhafi, spread like a centerfold across two pages.
How could such a hapless wreck of flesh, like countless tyrants before him, have come to grind up so many other lives in a brutal, home-made killing machine?
Exhibit B. While I can pore over gruesome photographs, for reasons I scarcely understand, I could not bear to watch the team I have followed since childhood play in the World Series this week.
The insanity began a month ago, when my team seemingly had no chance to make the playoffs, but what a thrill it might prove if they did. When they slipped into the playoffs on the final day of the regular season, I told myself that any success beyond that point, even a single victorious game, would be icing on the cake.
Whoever dished out the frosting got carried away. My heroes somehow dispatched two opponents with better records and, wonder of wonders, found themselves vying for a “world championship.”
Somewhere in Game 2, I realized I’d forgotten about the frosting. Now I wanted the whole cake, and from then on I could no longer watch. It made me crazy with anxiety. Moreover, my heroes seemed to fare better when I didn’t watch.
I tried a few other things to control this competition, including a red shirt that had done pretty well during last year’s college basketball season. (It didn’t help much, perhaps because I’d washed it.)
Occasionally I cheated and snuck a look to check the score. That helped some, especially when I saw Texas fans, their team two runs ahead, sitting in the stands with their heads in their hands, looking grim and frightened, or some not looking at all, because Albert Pujols was up to bat. Deranged as I was, I wasn’t alone. On both sides, we suffered in agony together.
Ah, but this, too, shall pass. At least no one’s head will get served up on a platter or displayed in a freezer this weekend.
Then again, I remember a few years ago looking long and hard at images of a once anonymous guy named Bartman, an ordinary fellow who, thanks to a foul ball, became a monster.
Can anyone explain how we’re wired?