A Special Comment on the Tragic Stabbing Death of Dwight Johnson

Moments ago I received the comment above about my last post. I have a response:

Cassandra: If I am interpreting your comment correctly, and you are Dwight’s cousin,  I want you and your family to know how very sad I am about what happened.  I cannot even begin to imagine the pain that all of you are feeling. I am thinking a lot  today about the fragility of life and the speed with which it can be tragically and cruelly ended.

Only the photographer can speak about the photographs themselves  and the decision to take them when she did. I reported the story that appeared  in the New York Times to students of mine who I thought might learn something valuable.

But I have a confession and an apology:  I am not happy with my initial reaction. I did think the incident and the photographs taken were vivid and interesting evidence of the speed and confusion with which these tragic events unfold.

But the minute I saw your email, I realized something else: My first reaction as a news consumer reading about the tragedy should have been concern for Dwight and all of you who today are living with this unbearable pain. My knee-jerk reaction was all too typical:  I  let the details of the incident obscure the single most important fact, i.e., that a precious human life was lost.

I once wrote an article about this very issue and you can read it here.  I wish I had remembered what I wrote. We all have to struggle to remember the foundation of grief and raw emotion that is always right there beneath the daily flood of events.

My only thought about the actions of the photographer  comes from work I have done studying how sudden traumatic events unfold and how they are covered in the media.  Explaining why people act  in certain ways under such extraordinary circumstances is almost impossible.  What seems logical moments later — and even days and weeks later —  often was not as obvious in the moment. Many of us, myself included, look back with regret to incidents in which we acted one way and not another. Our decision may have had tragic consequences. And sometimes we should have known better.

Much of the time, though, what we should have or could have done only becomes clear after the fact, and we have to be very careful not to judge ourselves too harshly. It is so important to remember just how fragile and human we are.

But what matters today is Dwight. I am thinking about you and your family.

All best wishes and deepest sympathy,

Steve Gorelick

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