The two-minute video is chilling. Not just because it features five teens standing along the banks of a pond in Cocoa, Florida, laughing as they watch a man drown. It is also chilling because it reveals something about our society.
In grainy cell phone footage, the teens’ video of 32-year-old Jamel Dunn’s June 9 drowning death proves something I’ve long suspected. Our society is suffering from a compassion deficit, and it’s reflected most poignantly online.
From presidential tweets that seek to belittle and embarrass, to Internet memes that reflect our worst instincts, we have sunk to a place where the humanity of others is far less valuable than a clickable post.
“Ain’t nobody fixing to help you, you dumb b—- you shoulda never got in there!” one of the boys says as Dunn’s panicked screams echo in the background.
The boys laugh and curse while Dunn’s head repeatedly disappears beneath the deep water. They narrate Dunn’s drowning as if it were a comedic skit.
Many online commenters expressed outrage when the video was posted. But as of this writing, the video had been repeatedly reposted, and viewed at least 1 million times on YouTube. So how outraged can we truly be?
Perhaps more importantly, how prepared are we to address the fact that filming death in pursuit of Internet fame is the new reality? Our laws certainly don’t provide an answer. That’s why Florida State Attorney Phil Archer last week released a statement saying that his office lacked the evidence to criminally prosecute the teens under Florida law.
The Cocoa Police Department subsequently said they would seek a way to pursue charges against the young men. But charges won’t get to the root issue, which quite simply is this: In the struggle between real-life compassion and online popularity, social media “likes” are winning.
How else to explain the boys’ comments in the video?
“Buddy got in with all his clothes on,” one of them says, referring to the drowning man by a generic slang term. “He keep putting his head under. Buddy … wow.”
“Is y’all fixing to sit right here?” one of them asks.
“You scared to see a dead person?” asks another.
“Hell no,” one of the teens responds. “I ain’t scared to see no dead person… ya’ll don’t understand.”
As Dunn’s head sinks beneath the water once again, the gravity of the incident seems to sink in.
“He just died!” one of the teens says, his voice filled with uncertainty and angst.
“He dead!” another repeats.
Then, as the time passes, and Dunn’s head fails to reemerge from the pond, the voices become quieter.
“Buddy been under there for a while now …” says one of the teens.
“Buddy not comin’ back up,” says another.
“Damn, we gotta call ’trol to come find his body,” one of the teens says, using a slang term for police.
“Naw, you callin’ ’trol,” says another.
And then, as they dismiss the idea of calling for help, the full weight of it drops between them, and the voices say what I am thinking as I watch them.
“Damn … bruh just died though … like … thinkin’ about that.”
“We ain’t even try to help him,” says one of them.
“Yeah he dead. Buddy gone.”
Then, just like that, the boys return to what they were doing when they spotted Dunn going into the water.
“Is you ever gonna hit the blunt?” one of them asks.
“Hey where the lighter at?”
With that seemingly innocuous question, the video ends, and like so many viewers, I am left to ask myself if compassion has ended as well.
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