Sunday, June 21, 2009

Neda, We Hardly Knew Ye

As the protests over the elections in Iran head into their second week, and the conflict turned deadly yesterday, a video surfaced on YouTube of a woman named Neda dying in the streets of Tehran.

Suddenly, Neda is the rallying cry of the Internet. The video has spread like wildfire and clearly made an impact on those who have seen it. Comments on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter generally fall into three categories: 1) Is this real? 2) Neda, you didn't die in vain and 3) I think I'm going to be sick.

Why? Why is this video, unlike the other pictures and videos of the situation in Iran, so compelling? And why is it so upsetting, particularly in a culture where acts of violence are all over our mass media? After all, this video doesn't show Neda being beaten or even being shot. When the video starts, she is already lying bloody on the ground. We certainly already knew there was violence in Iran, and we don't (as the people in comment category #1, above, point out) even know if the video is real.

First of all, it is certainly the case that people are more affected by things they can see, touch, hear, smell or taste themselves than by descriptions. That is why an appeal from Michael J. Fox is more effective than a typical ad for Parkinson's research: We saw him before the disease, we see him now, and we understand the difference on a very different level than when we hear about it. Seeing Neda die is different from hearing that she died -- we understand it and feel a connection on a deeper level.

Another important clue to why this video is so powerful comes in the form of category #1 questions. The question, "Is this real?" clues us in to the fact that something like this happening violates our worldview. On some deep level, we believe in a world that is safe. That feeling of safety is level two of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, which the Quarterback discussed yesterday. It is that belief in safety that enables us to function, to move higher on Maslow's pyramid, and to get out of bed in the morning. We live our lives based on what is likely, not what is possible, in terms of danger. This video brings home in a very vivid way what of course we already knew -- that the world is not safe, particularly if you are a protester in Tehran.

This is also why people feel like they're going to throw up when they see this video. It is not just because it is bloody and graphic, although that is part of it. It is because we presume it to be real, and because that reality violates our fundamental beliefs about the world. That is the hallmark of traumatic incidents. They shake our basic understanding of how the world works, and by doing that throw every other understanding we have into doubt.

Many people seeing this video, particularly if it is unlike any real thing they have seen before, feel unsafe on some level. Our appetite vanishes, we have nightmares, we feel sad or anxious or grouchy. We are experiencing secondary trauma. And if we don't, it may be because we did some other time. The Quarterback remembers feeling very shaken by the video of Nicholas Berg being beheaded in Iraq, even though the most graphic portion of the video was edited out.

I do not mean to imply in any way that the death of Neda is unimportant or that people should not be moved by it. But know what you are doing when you watch it, and when you have others watch it. You are traumatizing yourself. You can choose to do that, and maybe you feel you should, but the usual cautions apply -- find someone to talk to about it, not just about the politics of it but about the emotions of it. Take care of yourself. And be prepared to not feel quite right.

And with that caution, if you care to watch the video, here is the link.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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