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Our nation is experiencing a tumultuous time of divisiveness, terrorism, racism and prejudice. Over the last half-century, which is my lifetime, we have witnessed countless disturbing images in photographs and videos, on newscasts, over the Internet, and in person. The current polarization seems inevitable due to all we have seen, and has damaged many of the bridges that unite us.

            Confrontations during the civil rights movement, attempts to deny desegregation, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., killings at Kent State, members of the Israeli Olympic team murdered in Munich, airline disasters, wildlife covered in oil, wars viewed over televisions, beheadings, shootings, and bombings.

These are images that cannot be unseen.

Planes crashing into the twin towers and the buildings collapsing, bombs detonating during the Boston Marathon, communities destroyed from hurricanes, tornadoes and tsunamis, bodies covered in white sheets along the seaside promenade in Nice, and lives and families shattered as a result of Sandy Hook, San Bernardino, Orlando, Baton Rouge, Dallas, and other attacks.

These too are images that cannot be unseen.

Dr. Roxane Cohen Silver, Ph.D., a professor at the University of California, Irvine, has conducted research on the impact of repeated exposure to images of horror since the September 11th terrorist attacks, and states, “Back in 2001, most people learned of the 9/11 attacks via the television...now people are learning of these kinds of tragedies via social—as well as traditional—media, where graphic images are being distributed instantaneously because people are carrying the news in their hands all the time. We have found that with increasing exposure to graphic images and repeated hours of media exposure, individuals report greater stress responses. Specifically after 9/11, increased hours of early television exposure in the week after the attacks was associated with mental and physical health problems 2-3 years later.”

In light of these pictures that cannot be unseen and that burrow into our consciousness, it is no wonder our spirits are shaken, our psyches are battered, and the fabric of our country is threadbare.  

I am not proposing to forget these images or not to look at them. I am suggesting that instead of dividing, these pictures can unite. Unity can be achieved when we realize an attack on one is an attack on all. Harmony can be attained when we acknowledge that when a storm barrels over a community it is all of us fearing for our lives and the lives of those we love. Accord can be accomplished when we accept that an environmental disaster on Three Mile Island, at Chernobyl, or in Alaska’s Prince William Sound is detrimental to all.

            While many sights over the last fifty years are unsettling, there are those that are uplifting and unifying. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin planting the American flag on the moon, Tank Man blocking tanks in Tiananmen Square to protest violence, the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, President Obama being sworn into office as our first black president, video of Saddam Hussein after his capture, supporters of same sex marriage rejoicing when it became federal law, and people hugging police in Dallas.

Our psyches and our spirits are tattered as a result of horrific images that cannot be unseen. We must continue to create, to cure, to help, and to heal so the troubling images of the last fifty years no longer divide our nation, and future disturbing photographs unite us.

Joanne Lewis Blog