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Society desensitized to acts of terror

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Like the millions of people that watched in horror as the Twin Towers fell on September 11, 2001, Aneka McKean will never forget what she saw.
“I was in the fifth grade when 9/11 happened, and I remember seeing it on the news that morning but not truly understanding what the impact of the event was,” McKean, now a social science teacher at Laguna Creek, says. “I knew how significant it was because of how adults reacted around me. Many of the adults I knew cried, and I remember my teacher adjusting the day’s lessons, so we could watch and keep up to date.”
This was McKean’s first major exposure to terror, but it wouldn’t be the last. Since then, countless acts of violence have been reported in the news – Aurora, Sandy Hook, and San Bernardino just a few incidents among the many.
While acts of terror and violence may have seemed shocking, perhaps even rarer, in past decades, this is no longer the case. Just one peek at any news source reveals a glaring amount of horrific events to read about – shootings, crimes, and terrorism among them.
In fact, terror is so prominently reported that some psychologists believe that people are now “desensitized,” or less emotionally impacted, to news of terror.
Dr. Graham Davey, a psychologist who specializes in the effects of viewing violence in media, has found that constant exposure to violent news can subconsciously make people less empathetic.
He says the subconscious can become used to these consistently negative images, and it may make a person predisposed to view future violent events with a neutral mood, rather than with a more emotional response as would happen with the first exposure.
“Violence is becoming so common in our media. With the rise in technology, people see news regarding terror and violence on their phones, and that’s their only interaction with it. They don’t see it in person or talk about it with others, making it feel less real,” McKean says.
However, she knows all too well that these events can happen anywhere, and it can be much more personal than when violence is reported on a television screen or a cell phone.
Last year, there was a shooting outside of the school that McKean worked at.
“I was terrified because it was right after school got out, and I feared for my students who were walking home. However, there was nothing I could do to help them since our school was on lockdown, and teachers had to stay inside the school. The victim was also a cousin of one of our students, so we adjusted our school week to address it with the students. It will personally always stay with me,” McKean says.
She believes the incident across from her school, in addition to the amount of violence she been exposed to in the news, has changed the way she sees the world.
“Having already been a witness at a shooting, I know that violence can happen anywhere and at any time. It makes me vigilant and untrusting of people who I don’t know. Knowing there is so much violence in the world, much of which is not even covered in the news, worries me because there are so many people who could be this violent towards others. It makes me somewhat cynical as I wonder if human beings are naturally like this or if this is completely created by the society we all contribute to.”
While desensitization is something that concerns McKean, she has also realized that she herself is becoming desensitized, too.
“Unfortunately, I would say that I have become somewhat desensitized because of how frequent these events happen. The more you hear or see something, the more normal it becomes, and it is very worrisome that violence is this prevalent in our society.”
However, she still feels saddened whenever something horrific is reported, no matter what the scale of the violence is.
“The number of casualties does not affect my emotional reaction,” McKean says. “I don’t think it does because death, no matter the number, is still death.”
One of the things that worries McKean the most about desensitization is the cycle of violence and destruction it can create.
“If people are so desensitized to terror and violence, it could ultimately cause even more terror and violence,” she says. “It will cause people to not respond or react and will only further worsen the amount of violence,” McKean says.
McKean worries this overexposure to violence can make some people more prone to believing that their actions lack emotional consequences, which could possibly lead to them committing horrific acts themselves.
However, she has hope that people won’t become too desensitized and detached from violent news and that they instead hold onto their compassion for others to promote peace.
“​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Desensitization is very alarming to me because the only way to overcome this is if we are all there to support each other. Our ability to empathize with others is what makes us human,” McKean says. “Spread good vibes to others, and it will hopefully inspire a positive, non-violent world.”

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Society desensitized to acts of terror