Last weekend, a soccer match in the European Championship came to the most uncomfortable of pauses when a player did something utterly alarming: He died.
What was remarkable wasn’t the resuscitation — but instead how the patient’s peers behaved as it took place. They gathered around their fallen teammate in a circle on the pitch, protecting him from the camera’s view. They knew that fans around the world, sitting at a bar, sipping a beer and seeing a life end, would continue, in wondering horror, to watch.
The moment raised the question: Why do we watch, anyway? We’re drawn to disaster, not only out of curiosity but out of complicity, too.
Of course, our impulse to watch something terrible happen is probably to be expected when spectacle is what’s on tap night after night. The Euro 2020 exists to be consumed, and organizers don’t care if you see the whole thing or just check out the highlights, and lowlights, after. Clicking a YouTube video of “random man has heart attack on street?” Sicko. Clicking a YouTube video of “star soccer player has heart attack on field?” Perfectly normal.
Yet things start to seem a little less normal when you consider just how often we like a little misfortune with our entertainment — so often that the misfortune is more attractive than the entertainment itself.
Plenty of people who never cheered on a horse in the Kentucky Derby, much less in the Preakness Stakes, stared rapt at their television screens in 2006 as rerun after rerun showed the thoroughbred Barbaro shattering his leg. Listicles and clip compilations catalog the all-time most gruesome sports injuries as if they were worthy of celebration: tibias and fibulas and even eyeballs pop out of bodies for all to gaze on.
We probably wouldn’t remember tiger-charmers Siegfried & Roy at all if they’d stepped quietly back into the Las Vegas night like so many other fad performers. But Roy’s career-ending mauling by the big cat Mantecore landed the two in the pantheon of disaster porn.
This need to see the worst isn’t limited to sports. Consider those ubiquitous images of planes slamming into the World Trade Center 20 years ago, and men and women leaping from its highest floors. Consider the footage of police shooting or smothering or otherwise killing Black men that go viral again and again because the police kill again and again.
This last case may help to understand why we watch the nearly unwatchable. Many of us, and especially those of us who are White, do it out of a perverse sense of duty. We imagine that the least we can do is bear witness to the atrocities inflicted by a system from which we benefit every day.
Maybe this thinking holds even truer when it comes to calamities attached to activities that we deliberately support with our dollars or our attention, whether soccer or tiger-taming. And maybe it’s truest of all when these calamities are utterly predictable: What happens when you force a thousand-pound stallion to sprint until it can’t sprint anymore?
The same way a carnivore may ask herself whether she should eat anything she couldn’t stand to kill, we’re trying to hold ourselves accountable; to test our ability to tolerate the worst of things whose best aspects we reap routinely for pleasure. White supremacy, meat, a great corner kick. Yet it’s also possible that we’re letting ourselves off the hook, rather than putting ourselves on it — saying it’s okay for someone or something to suffer a lot, and us to do nothing about it, as long as we’re willing to suffer a little by refusing for a moment to look away.
We’re wrong to think that watching something terrible always makes that thing feel more real. After all, we usually watch whatever it is we watch for precisely the opposite reason. We watch to escape from real life, and to distract ourselves from the world’s burdens. Watching a calamity, sometimes, only makes the calamity also feel like a performance.
So the show must go on, and our eyes will stay on it, too. Besides, are we not entertained?
An earlier version of this column misstated the date of Barbaro's injury in the Preakness Stakes. It was in 2006. This version has been corrected.