What are we losing in the Web’s images of suffering and schadenfreude?

capaThe picture arrived on the front page of the New York Post, ignited a firestorm of controversy and then faded within the usual two to three news cycles.

It showed a dark-haired man in a light-green jacket, standing on the New York City subway tracks as a Q train approached. “Pushed on the subway track, this man is about to die,” read the headline, making it dreadfully clear that this was an image of death in action.

Like Robert Capa’s 1936 photograph that purportedly shows a Spanish Republic militiaman struck by a bullet and collapsing on a hillside. Or Eddie Adams’s agonizing 1968 image of a Viet Cong soldier executed on the streets of Saigon. Or grainy screen grabs of Saddam Hussein on the gallows. Debates about the image twisted and turned the usual poles: Is it ethical to take and exhibit this kind of image? And why is it so compelling?

The anxiety about whether it is seemly to feast one’s eyes on the moment of another man’s death is at least as old as Saint Augustine, who recounted in the “Confessions” the futile resistance his protégé Alypius made to the attractions of gladiator contests. When Alypius was dragged, resisting and protesting, to the arena by a gaggle of worldly friends, the young man…

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