The grainy, unadorned video of Scott’s death also comes to us shortly after the kickoff of a season in which television and the movies turn their attention to artful, lethal violence. The contrast between what’s been sold to us as gritty, honest confrontations with medieval torture, or what’s presented as consequence-free entertainment, and the real, unadorned death of a 50-year-old man, is unnerving. And it ought to be.
In the video, Scott isn’t running particularly fast, and he doesn’t get very far; he takes perhaps eight steps before Slager manages to unholster his weapon and begin firing. Slager squeezes off the shots rapidly, but it takes eight bullets to bring Scott to the ground. I’ve watched the first thirty seconds of the footage at least a dozen times, and my eye always catches on the moment when Scott’s stride alters, his left hand brushing his back. Had he been hit, then, or merely felt a bullet pass close by him?
When Scott finally falls under one of the trees in the park, his knees buckle under him, and then the rest of his body follows. Hilary Mantel described the beheading of Thomas More in “Wolf Hall” by having Thomas Cromwell note that: “The corpse seems to have leapt back from the stroke and folded itself like a stack of old clothes—inside which, he knows, its pulses are still beating.” It’s hard to think of a more terrible, precise description of that moment when a human being is transformed, through someone else’s violence, into an object.
One moment, Walter Scott is a living person, running for his life. The next, he’s a body, lying in the shade. Slager, seemingly unaware Scott is dead, shouts at Scott to put the hands he will never move again behind his back. In a grotesque pantomime of adherence to procedure, Slager handcuffs Scott’s body and leaves him lying on the ground as if he presents some sort of threat. (Given Slager’s arrest for muder, Scott may pose a greater danger to Slager’s safety and freedom now that he is dead than he did when he was living.) It’s the second officer who arrives on the scene, who appears to be African American, who touches Scott not to restrain him, but to find out what happened to him, pulling up Scott’s shirt to reveal his back. Only after the other man has conducted his inspection does Slager reach down to touch Scott’s neck with two fingers, a gesture that suggests he was checking for a pulse.
The New York Times, which first obtained the video of Scott’s death, put a warning label on the clip, cautioning viewers that it “contains graphic violence and language.” At The Post, we simply labeled it “graphic content.” But by the standards of our cultural depictions of death by violence, the video of Scott’s death lacks the baroque visual details that are meant to make a work feel gritty and highly charged. We don’t see his blood or his wounds, we don’t hear him make sounds of pain. Scott’s death followed a scuffle, rather than the sort of highly choreographed bone-crunching ballet to which we’ve become accustomed.
Stripped of all these artistic distractions, though, it’s impossible to deny the piercing reality of what we’ve just seen happen. There’s no art to appreciate here, nothing to be awed by, nothing that lets us talk about aesthetics instead of how we feel about the fact that someone has died in front of us.