April 1945

A column penned by photojournalist Ernie Pyle, made famous for his coverage of the Second World War, was found on his body after he was killed by a Japanese machine gunner on the island of Ie Shima. It was written in commemoration of the recently declared victory of Allied forces in Europe. The entire thing is powerful. This segment in particular has always stuck with me:

"Last summer I wrote that I hoped the end of the war could be a gigantic relief, but not an elation. In the joyousness of high spirits it is so easy for us to forget the dead. Those who are gone would not wish themselves to be a millstone of gloom around our necks.

"But there are so many of the living who have had burned into their brains forever the unnatural sight of cold dead men scattered over the hillsides and in the ditches along the high rows of hedge throughout the world.

"Dead men by mass production-in one country after another-month after month and year after year. Dead men in winter and dead men in summer.

"Dead men in such familiar promiscuity that they become monotonous.

“Dead men in such monstrous infinity that you come almost to hate them.

"Those are the things that you at home need not even try to understand. To you at home they are columns of figures, or he is a near one who went way and just didn’t come back. You didn’t see him lying so grotesque and pasty beside the gravel road in France.

"We saw him, saw him by the multiple thousands. That’s the difference."

*     *     *

April 2015

Their fear was as plain as their orange jumpsuits. The dozen black men were forced to kneel by balaclava-clad militants under a clear blue sky on a fantastically idyllic shore, brilliant azure water lapping at its edge. Subtitles helpfully identify the hapless souls as “worshippers of the cross belonging to the hostile Ethiopian Church.” The impending ritual of violence was located on the beach of Barqa, Libya.

The balaclava-clad crew behind them held knives in their hands. On cue, they simultaneously pushed their charges to the sand. I knew what was coming next, but I had to watch. It’s my job. Or, rather, I thought I knew what was coming next. But I only knew its substance—a mass beheading—and not its style. It was one of the most shocking things I’ve seen in a half decade full of ever more gruesome spectacles.

The decapitations were sickeningly grisly; unlike most ISIS productions of the year previous, this one took care to show the severing of heads from necks in excruciatingly graphic detail. Every step of the way, every ripped shred of skin, every cut artery and torn vein, recorded in sparkling high definition. I remember the victims’ faces twisted in horror, the bright crimson gush of blood escaping newly opened necks and how, improbably, perversely, it brought to mind the title of John Mayer’s first album: Inside Wants Out. Most terrifying of all was the sound; screams initiated then grimly truncated into gurgles and gargles as throats were rent unnaturally ajar.

It was an awful scene, so much more graphic than anything I had seen for quite some time. In the moment, I didn’t appreciate that the growing pains of ISIS’s global expansion indirectly transferred to the pain on the men’s faces. In due time I would come to see the same sort of distinctly unprofessional terror meted out in Yemen and the Philippines, as new franchises beyond the group's Iraqi and Syrian heartlands, untested in the administration of ISIS’s brand of savagery, sought to make their mark. From such disparate locales would come slickly produced videos of men unpracticed in the craft of decapitation giving it the old college try, their dearth of dexterity betraying their inexperience as hands nervously search for good grips on foreheads, faces, and chins, fingers clumsily plunging into nostrils and eyeballs as they try to hold their victims steady. The real professionals of Iraq and Syria, though, their victims never screamed and their gurgling was tempered.

But those poor Ethiopians on that gorgeous beach screamed. And screamed. And screamed. Their open necks sputtered and whistled as liquid and air each flowed out of place. The pristine shore was stained a forebodingly brilliant shade of red.

Maybe it was because it was so grisly, or maybe it was because it was the first time I had ever seen people whose eminently breachable skin looked so similar to my own, or maybe it was a combination of the two—but I can honestly say that this video, remarkably, was the first one to well and truly fuck me up. I had a mental break.

I stayed past the end of my overnight shift in order to finish summarizing the video, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep once I got home. I kept seeing their faces when I closed my eyes. I kept hearing their unnatural cries when my eyes were open. I asked a friend to meet me for brunch in downtown DC so that I wouldn’t be by myself, so that I could have an excuse to stay up for a few more hours and postpone the visit of dead men in my dreams. We met, and it was a welcome distraction for a little while.

Because the metro system was suffering severe delays, I decided to take a cab back to the part of town where I had parked my car. My driver was Ethiopian.

When I reached home, the intrusive visions and sounds of messily murdered men continued their assault on my senses. In the midst of that dreadful cacophony of the mind, a strange, terrible series of thoughts came over me: It was so undignified of them, to die like that. Why couldn’t they hold it together? Why did they have to scream like that? It was embarrassing.

I had never put much stock in traditional markers of masculinity, but having watched many executions before that fateful day, and hundreds more since, one feature of masculinity has grown to have incredible value to me: equanimity in the face of violence generally, and repose before one’s execution in particular. These Ethiopians were no Abu al-Miqdam, one of the first prominent anti-Assad rebels to have his execution documented by the Islamic State before it became a household name; a man who, even as his throat was cut and head removed, had the focus and clarity of mind to declare his last testimony of faith. These Ethiopians were no James Foley, who calmly read the statement his executioners had prepared for him and bade farewell to his family before he met the same fate.

No. These men had screamed. And I blamed them for it.

Were that Ernie Pyle could have lived a bit longer, to know that telecommunications would, indeed, bring us visions of dead men in winter and dead men in summer, dead men in monstrous infinity, for it was only then that I understood his suggestion that when you see enough dead men you can start to hate them. I resolved that if I ever found myself in such a situation, my final performance on earth would be as a man: resolute, fearless, stoic at steel’s touch on skin. My death would be dignified.  

I got out of bed and went to the kitchen. I opened the drawer to the left of my stove. And for the first time ever, I put a knife to my own throat. It was cold.

I was scared.

With a few days’ practice, I got over it.

*     *     *

October 2015

I had been dating Michelle for nearly two months before I met one of her best friends, an ER doctor. We met her for drinks on one of my first visits to Philadelphia. She was bummed out because a patient of hers had died that day. It turns out that having people die at work can make meeting your BFF’s new boyfriend hours later a little awkward.

I sought to allay her self-consciousness about being a downer by talking about how the juxtaposition of her direct experience of death in her workplace with my mediated experience of death in my workplace spoke to a longstanding point of intellectual curiosity. As an emergency room doctor, I am sure that she has seen many people suffer grievously from natural or man-made hazards. And yet, even though I heretofore have not seen anyone die in front of my person, I have likely seen an exponentially higher number of people die, be killed, and suffer grievous wounds than she has. I mused out loud about how many dozens, hundreds, or thousands of mediated traumas it takes to fill the space of a single lived one. Maybe watching a couple hundred more people be executed by gunshot on video would prepare me for a night in the trauma bay?

I didn’t exactly say all of that out loud, but you get the point. Unfortunately, I think my attempt at macabre camaraderie fell flat.

I wished I hadn’t said anything.

*     *     *

September 2016

I was in Brooklyn for the second time in a month for a reason I can’t remember. What I can remember is that I was fortunate enough to find myself spending the night with an old flame, a thoughtful and kind woman full of love and poetry. She had just gone to the bathroom and, in a brief moment of solitude and weakness, I acquiesced to my Facebook addiction, opening the app on my phone.

That’s when I saw what I had been avoiding for days: the video of a policewoman shooting dead Terence Crutcher. Shooting him dead, even though his hands were up. Shooting him dead, even though that he was moving slowly. Shooting him dead, even though he was non-threatening. Shooting him dead. Shooting him. Dead.

I was upset, and must have looked it, because when my host came back into the room she asked me what was wrong. I told her what I had just inadvertently seen, that I had been avoiding it.

“I don’t watch videos like that,” she told me. “It’s just another way of making black pain into a spectacle.” I suppose I should note here that she is white.

And so it was somewhat odd to find myself telling her that I disagreed.

I recall telling her I’ve had to watch many people die, and that perhaps taking the time to watch such videos, to not leave people murdered under awful circumstances unseen and unacknowledged at the end of their lives, is something we should all do. That if my death were captured on camera, it is my ardent wish that everyone watch it. To be seen at my life’s most climactic moment. That pain as spectacle is not inherently deplorable.

I do not recall if I told her that I felt myself a weak hypocrite because, since the previous April, I had made it a point of acting differently than the demands of my aforementioned, self-serving ideology—the one thing that helps me make peace with my work—would have me.

And I certainly did not tell her that this hypocritical compulsion to guard a newly exquisite sensitivity to spectacles of death was only engendered by the sight of black skin giving way to red flesh. I did not tell her that the source of this hypocrisy doubled its ignominy; that previously witnessing hundreds of Arabs thus dispatched failed to similarly break my mind and twist it into war with their ghosts was, in some sense, a colossal failure of my humanity. It didn’t occur to me until later that perhaps the measure of my humanity could not be deduced by my reaction to each individual of those untold hundreds; that they were priming me for a break all the same.

I began to replay the video of Crutcher being shot in my mind. And that’s when it hit me: he was only shot to death. It’s not that bad of a way to die. It was unjust. I was angry before I saw the video, angrier still now that I had witnessed his death myself. But of the thousands of people I’ve seen killed, those who were shot were the lucky ones. I shouldn’t lose sleep over it. Right? It’s not a bad way to die.

My lover and I got in bed. I slept just fine.

*     *     *

November 2016

I left an election watch party in DC shortly after 2am, when the networks called Pennsylvania for Trump. On my way home, driving on a highway as dark as my mood, I listened to NPR. Mike Pence was taking the podium. He had just begun his remarks. My heart was sinking as the reality of the moment set in.

Maybe the sinking of my heart further impaired the functioning of my eyes and the alertness of my brain. Because that's when it happened.

I hit a deer.

Its right hind quarter started to rip apart as it flew onto the hood of my car, wrinkling it like a crumpled dress shirt. The newly bermed hood of my vehicle formed an impromptu barrier that prevented the quasi-dismembered beast from flying into my windshield. It also afforded a split-second, close up view of muscle being torn beneath its forcefully parted fur. Inside wants out.

Then, in seemingly inexplicable defiance of physics, it flew into the air, over the roof of my car. As I continued to slam on the brakes, I heard a sickening thud as the deer, not yet carcass, hit the asphalt behind me. I pulled onto the shoulder where I tried calming myself. I was too scared to get out of the car and inspect the damage: scared that I would be killed by a random white person, because black motorists in need of assistance have a bad track record of receiving it; scared that I would encounter fur and skin and blood in the grill; and scared that I could get hit by another car (and yes, those fears are written in order of precedence). I called my dad so that he could talk me through what to do, because my brain simply shut down from the stress. You learn who you are in moments like that, and I was not impressed with myself.

Gingerly, I drove my decidedly unroadworthy car home. Only after I was safely parked at home did I bother to walk to the front of the car and ascertain the damage. Structurally, it was as damaged as I had feared. But there was no blood. No skin. No fur. I felt like a coward. It seems no amount of mediated death—no number of people I had seen shot, stabbed, decapitated, buried alive, stoned, tossed from roofs, set on fire, drowned, blown up—had prepared me for a fleeting moment of unexpected, gory violence inflicted upon a “mere” animal. I was profoundly shaken.

I entered my home and got in bed. Sleep eluded me for hours. My heart broke for that poor creature that I left mangled and scared to die alone on a cold highway leading from our nation’s capital. Even now, it feels curiously vulgar to bemoan my metaphorically broken heart as I lament quite literally breaking her body. I was ashamed of my error. More profoundly, I was ashamed of my reaction: panicked, heaving, pathetic.

I got out of bed and went to the kitchen. I opened the drawer to the left of my stove. And for the first time in months, I put a knife to my own throat. I started with the blunt side of the awkwardly large blade—serviceable for a lethal slash but that only an amateur would use when trying to behead someone—pressing it against my neck, hard, holding held it there until I became accustomed to its cold and unnatural touch. I flipped the blade around to its sharp edge. Here was the occasionally repeated encore of a one-man show for which I was the sole audience: a ritual preparation for an unlikely end; a salve for my anxiety about facing stress and violence with equanimity; an attempt at embodied empathy for those who took their slaughter like men and a desperate plea that I would never be among those who couldn’t.

Except this time I choked. I couldn’t bring myself to put the knife’s sharp edge to my throat. I returned it to the drawer and prayed an agnostic’s prayer for those Ethiopians on the beach. I told them I was sorry.

*     *     *

March 2017

Not until the finishing stages of putting these reflections on the page did I realize I had never even bothered to learn the names of those men murdered on the beach.

So I went looking. I couldn’t find them.

AuthorAustin Branion