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Horror and Pornography

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I hesitate to link to this; take care, because it’s a genuinely horrible story of the death of a small child.  Newspapers acquire, justified or not, reputations for certain kinds of stories. The Lexington Herald Leader, it seems, almost invariably has some terrible tale of something awful befalling a toddler, whether shooting or car accident or fall from great height or some other mishap.

For reasons I haven’t been able to fully articulate, this story affects me more than most.  I’ve thought about it since the incident first hit the news, for reasons that should be obvious.  The story of the last moments is incomparably horrible, both for mother and child. At the same time, the participants oddly defy blame.  The father will likely go to prison, but this is clearly not a case of intentional homicide; it is perhaps too easy for parents to imagine something like this happening, if they ever found themselves with the misfortune of being forced to live in a trailer-turned-meth-lab.

While we can make social-science-laden-public-policy observations about events like this, in a country as large and varied as the United States, the overall impact of any public policy shift is simply to marginally increase or decrease the number of toddlers who die horrible deaths.  Policy shifts can have an impact that is hardly trivial; any of more investment in schools, an easing of drug prohibition, anti-poverty programs, greater access to and information about birth control, and better funded social service programs might have made a difference in this case.  Nevertheless, people are going to die in ways that shock and horrify; state policy only changes the “who” and “how many.”

I should also say that I’ve been reluctant to post on this because of a nagging feeling that, for the family, there ought to be something deeply private about this event. Reading the story, especially in the excruciatingly clinical style of the first link, feels like watching pornography; there’s something wrong about the notion that I have the right to know about it.  The story activates my horror/outrage/despair centers in an almost voyeuristic manner. That the story happens to be true only enhances the emotional rush. Surely the state needs to intervene, even if the principles have already been horribly punished.  Clearly, the media should stand as watchdog to the state, and evaluation of the events should inform our politics and policy. Still, I can’t help but feel that the combination of righteous outrage and horror that I feel when I read about the case is inappropriate; this belongs to someone else, and I have no right to this sense of despair.

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