On August 13, Cecilia Casals set herself on fire at the Mall of Americas in Miami, Florida and walked quietly and calmly among shocked onlookers for two and a half minutes. She suffered third degree burns over 75% of her body, from which she ultimately died three days later. This is a sensational enough story and it is not my intention to add to that.
Many of the people nearby were understandably frozen in shock. For that I can’t blame them. None, I’m sure, had ever seen anything like it before. The troubling thing (aside from the obvious) is that while three people made some attempt to help her ,even at risk of injury to themselves, many people’s first response was to reach into their pockets and pull out their cell phones and cameras to take pictures. I must give credit to John Torres and the two others who attempted to come to her aid — for being human beings. While their actions were commendable, it’s a shame that they are the exception and not the rule.
As it turns out, she had a history of “mental health” issues and a criminal record for drug charges and attacking a boyfriend with a knife who, still in love with her, dropped the charges. People, as they often do, used her past to put her on trial in the press and over the internet but her past is irrelevant to the inaction of the people around her. We shouldn’t question the value of the life that was lost even at her own hand and when it happened, it wasn’t a “mentally ill” woman or a criminal that people saw. Nobody knew anything about her in that instant. She could have been anybody — you, me, your mother or daughter — and when it mattered the most and precious seconds could have saved her, people took pictures. I can’t wrap my head around that. People are seeing the worst individual human tragedy they’re likely to see in their lives and instead of reaching for a way to help her, they reach for their phones so they can share it with friends and strangers alike.
In a move that was both tactless and tasteless, NBC Washington’s headline for the story read, “Human Torch Had Issues Burning Inside.” Their website also offers a survey in the sidebar as to people’s response to the story. Unfortunately but not surprisingly, it’s 53% sad, 20% laughing, 13% bored and so on. That says a lot about us as a whole. Of the people that cared to offer a response, 33% were either laughing or bored by the story.
This may be another instance in which the news media is not so much a window through which to see the world but a mirror. God help us if in that reflection is a mob of onlookers who have lost their last shred of regard for the life their neighbors and find humor in something so devoid of it . I find it disgusting beyond measure that many among us would rather watch someone die than help them and miss the show.