Horrific videos like the ones posted by the Christchurch mosque shooting suspect Brenton Tarrant are geared to appeal to the morbidly curious, and appeal it did. Dozens of copies of what appears to be footage from a helmet-mounted camera are circulating on the darker corners of the internet and are being persistently posted on more mainstream platforms such as YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, which don’t always manage to catch the video before it goes up.
Some of us, like journalists and police, are professionally obliged to view distressing imagery to try and discern valuable new information, whether for investigation purposes or to better inform debate. A small minority of us might be scanning the footage in desperate hope to establish the whereabouts of our loved ones.
But plenty of people are today looking at the Christchurch video for no real good reason—just because the draw of the drama and the apparent safety of viewing it from miles away, behind a computer screen.
You don’t need to be an 8chan denizen to be tempted by first-hand footage of an event dominating the news cycle, just as most people probably wouldn’t look away if they came by the scene of an attack—or even a particularly bad accident—in real life. And you don’t even need to on 8chan to stumble on the footage, as search engines’ predictive search will actively encourage you to browse for it when you type a related term (I’m looking at you, Google and YouTube—not to mention Facebook, which hosted the live stream to begin with.)
The very fact terrorists exploit people’s interest in dramatic events should caution you against typing in that search string, and certainly against sharing it with others.
Firstly, by doing so you’d be playing up to the narcissism of someone who couldn’t come up with any more adequate way to generate renown than to massacre innocent people. Whatever false modesty Tarrant might profess in the tedious manifesto ascribed to him, a quality shared universally by terrorists of all ilks is the desire to stand out from the crowd, to be seen—if only by themselves—as heroes and possibly martyrs. There’s plenty to be said for simply declining to oblige their desire for notoriety.
Secondly, it is difficult to imagine a more intimate moment in any person’s life than dying. Tarrant not only brutally brought this moment forward for dozens of innocent people, who had so many more years to live and so much more than him to give to their families, communities and to the country they made their home. He was determined to humiliate them, to make them look like targets in a video game. If you want to know more about the victims, wait for their life stories to emerge. By looking through the killer’s helmet camera, you are adopting his gaze, and actively participating in this indignity.
Thirdly, and as importantly, just because you’re not at the scene and not in any immediate risk, this does not mean that you will not be affected. Huge swathes of culture—especially visual culture—is premised on our ability to viscerally experience violence indirectly. Every time you feel your heartbeat accelerating during a tense scene in a thriller, or jump when a dark figure rushes the screen, you’re having a vicarious experience—and it can be as impactful as anything you are a part of, in real life. This isn’t to say a single viewing of the footage will irreparably scar you—in fact, it’s repeated exposure that carries the worst of the risk—but it will be, at the very least, far more unsettling than you probably bargained for.
The British Medical Association describes vicarious trauma as “the process of change resulting from empathetic engagement with trauma survivors.” It notes that “anyone who engages empathetically with survivors of traumatic incidents, torture, and material relating to their trauma, is potentially affected, including doctors and other health professionals.”
There is growing recognition that the same is true for those of us not engaging directly with victims and survivors: Storytelling in all forms is built precisely on not needing to meet someone in the flesh to empathise with them, to experience their suffering, fear and sorrow as yours.
Still, suppose you went against your better instincts and watched it anyway, or were professionally obligated to. How can you limit the damage to yourself and others—especially if you’re in the latter category, and your work entails the likelihood of similar footage still to come?
The Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma at the Columbia Journalism School in New York offers a number of resources on how to deal with traumatic imagery, designed mostly to put even more distance between yourself and what is happening (full disclosure—I attended Dart training in 2016 and remain involved with journalism and trauma work.)
Don’t watch unless you have to; if you have to watch it, don’t watch more times than you have to; if you must watch the footage over and over again, watch it on a small screen—and I, personally, found it useful to watch with the sound off.
Dart also suggests to plan your viewing carefully before you hit play, assigning yourself regular breaks to catch your breath and distance yourself from the event. It suggests pausing the footage, getting up, watching from a standing or a less than comfortable position—everything that you wouldn’t do when you want to immerse yourself in a fictional movie experience, deliberately do it now.
Finally, breathe. Distressing footage forces our brain to simulate its response real-life emergencies. It accelerates our heartbeat and hastens our breath, floods us with adrenalin to gear us up to a flight or fight response. It also sharpens our attention with laser-like hyper-awareness, focusing us on the most threatening and therefore most distressing details: wounds, the faces of the dying, the shots, the screams. Anxiety creates these physical symptoms, and these symptoms feed back and prolong anxiety. Gently push back. Look away at something that suggests comfort, safety, or even routine. Breathe in. Breathe out. Slow it all down.
News and social media, especially in this highly interactive age, feeds on our fear of missing out and fear of losing control. When you post a comment or retweet new information you find particularly galling, you might feel like you’re participating—like you’re alerting people and pushing back against the horror that broke out on a peaceful Friday afternoon in a quiet New Zealand mosque.
The reality is, there is nothing you can do about what had already happened. The suspects are in custody. The dead are already dead. But beyond reaching out and supporting the survivors, the families and the first responders, you can influence and limit the impact of one man’s action going forward. You can protect yourself, your colleagues and your loved ones from what he’s done. It might not instantly make the world a better place, but it’ll help make it that bit less miserable than Tarrant wants it to be.
Dimi Reider is the International Affairs Editor at Newsweek. He has been engaged in trauma work since 2015, with a focus on coping strategies.