A Heightened State of Apathy (Or: If a Drug Deal Goes Down In My Parking Lot, Shouldn’t I Be a Bit Freaked Out?)

I heard her scream last night. I shouldn’t have; I was sleeping, and sound doesn’t just sneak into my apartment. A half-dozen Camaros could backfire simultaneously in the parking lot outside, and I wouldn’t hear it.

But I heard her.

I went to the window and peered out from behind the shade. She was there, dark skin and dark hair underneath white street lights, running around, hysterical in the worst sense of the word. There was a man, standing near a purple minivan. Every time she walked near him, she started yelling.

My windows were closed; now I couldn’t hear anything. All I saw was a woman, hysterical and screaming in the parking lot outside my building. It was 11:30 at night.

Then a fire truck arrived, and then a cop car, and then another. I went downstairs and found the security guard who patrols the lots around my building.

He said a drug deal had just gone wrong. The woman and the man had been beaten with a crowbar by three men. The woman was saying that the men had threatened to kill her.

So I stood there for a minute — maybe not even — and then I went back upstairs. I opened the windows that face the parking lot and watched the officers take their statements from the victims. I took the photo that you see at the top of this page.

And then I shut down my camera and my laptop and walked across my apartment to my bed. I spread out and considered what I knew to be true: a pitching wedge from where I was sleeping, a woman and a man were assaulted with a crow bar during a drug deal.

It was the closest I’d ever been, really, to a violent crime, and I wondered what my family would say if they knew that drug deals were occasionally going down — and going wrong — outside my apartment. I was scared of what they might say. I was scared of what they might do.

But what scares me most — and what’s keeping me up now — is that a drug deal had just gone wrong outside my apartment, and at the time, I wasn’t really that scared at all.

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Up front: don’t blame this on violent video games; I’ve never owned an N64 or a Wii, so it’s not like hours spent playing “Goldeneye” or “Grant Theft Auto” are at fault.

And for the Freud-at-home types who want to blame it on TV: don’t. I work for a TV station now, but I don’t even own a television. And the TV shows of my youth hardly skewed violent, unless you consider “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” to be the serialization of a criminal’s travels.

No, the source my indifference goes beyond brand name blames. What I experienced last Sunday was a desensitization that defies any sort of rationality I’ve previously known.

What I experienced was reverse shell shock, a sort-of post-traumatic unstress disorder. It seems that bad things — terrifying things — are happening in my world, and I couldn’t care less. I’m living in a heightened state of apathy.

This type of behavior can’t be tracked to a single incident or abnormal behavior. Rather, I believe it’s the culmination of bad news over the course of my lifetime. It’s the end product of every shooting in D.C., every death in Iraq, every bombing at any embassy anywhere. In my lifetime, death has been sanitized, and a journalist, I’ve prepared myself to deal with news — and what news really means in America today.

Here at my TV station, we traffic in news, and by news, we really mean human misery. Right now, on our website, we’ve linked to 12 stories, of which half involve a fatal shooting or car crash. The others involve the economy, school restrictions, Afghanistan, police tasering and an apartment eviction.

We’ve broken up the monotony — and there is a certain irony in this — with a story about golf.

When news breaks, we know that bad things are happening. And increasingly, I’m seeing tragedy as just something that happens. There’s so much of it that I hardly care about any of it.

A shooting death? A car crash? A bank robbery? My reaction is one-size-fits-all: meh.

I don’t think this behavior is uncommon. We’re all capable of creating bubbles in our lives and setting levels for the kinds of news or ideas that we let in 1.).

I think Israelis are proof.

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I say this as someone who thinks he understands why there is fighting in Jerusalem and why it won’t be resolved anytime soon. I also say this as a Jew:

Israelis are a little bit crazy.

I remember my fifth grade Hebrew school teacher. Her name was Orna, and she’d lived in Israel for most of her life. So unlike the rest of the teachers who tried to impress Judiasm upon us each Wednesday, Orna was a True Believer.

By which I mean to say, the rest of the teachers believed in the faith, but Orna was the only one who’d ever fired an Uzi to protect it.

And it wasn’t like Orna was some wildly-athletic super Jew. Maybe it’s just time wearing at the memory, but Orna looked like the Israeli version of Mrs. Doubtfire.

Orna had served — as all Israelis do — in the army. She’d been trained to kill with brutally effective weapons. She’d been deployed around the country for combat. She’d driven across the desert in a Jeep in search of enemies of the state 2.).

What that meant — and what we learned — was that Orna’s experience was normal. All Israelis serve time in the military, which means that all Israelis share one common narrative-shaping and mentally-scarring experience before their 25th birthday.

And unlike the American military, which is currently deployed and fighting thousands of miles away, the Israeli army happens to be fighting their battles at home. So when an Israeli is discharged from the military, he doesn’t get to fly home. Instead, the war zone he’s fought in suddenly becomes — simply — home.

This tends to change things, I would think.

The Israelis I’ve met — dating back to Orna — have been great people. They’ve been educated, engaging and interesting. But they’ve also been — almost universally — combative, hyper-aggressive and quasi-threatening. They’re the kinds of people who’ll harangue you in conversation while eating pita bread.

They’ll make this swift human-to-Hulk transformation, and when it’s over, you’re left wondering what you’ve just seen, or even if you’ve seen anything at all.

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There’s one more thing that you need to know about Israel, one thing that’s fairly obvious but that doesn’t get spelled out very often:

Israel is a Jewish homeland.

And if you’re Jewish, this much is true: God has hand-chosen your ancestors, and nearly every civilization with the capability to record their own actions has attempted to wipe out those ancestors of yours.

You’d be a bit feisty too if you believed that.

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So Israelis — hoping to live peacefully in the land that they lay claim to — try to create a sense of normalcy around them, even as they live in terror. A bomb goes off in the market around the corner, and the Israeli still goes out shopping the next day. Why? The phrasing is ripped straight from a W. press conference: because otherwise, the other side wins.

But the bubble only holds up so long. At some point, bad news breaks through. There’s only so long that a person can go on convincing himself that what he’s seeing outside the bubble is normal behavior. At some point, the concept of deviance cannot be bent any further for the sake of normalcy. At some point, humans will create something shocking enough to actually break through.

At some point, everyone realizes that they’re not creating a sense of normalcy; they’re creating a false sense of normalcy.

I just haven’t gotten there yet.

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I remember the last time I felt scared. The night of Sept. 11., my family was watching CNN. In 22 years, I cannot remember ever seeing CNN on in my house. But on that night, we were watching, and CNN was debuting their video phone technology from Kabul.

I had never heard of Kabul before, because the city had never mattered before, at least not in my lifetime. And now, some men in a city I’d only discovered 12 hours earlier were lighting the town on fire, and huge, pixelated frames were traveling across telephone lines and into my TV.

These men wanted to kill us, it seemed. I was scared because they were faceless, and because they were celebrating the brief destruction of another society. What we didn’t know — or rather, who we didn’t know — had suddenly become a threat.

But by the morning, those men had faces and names and roles in society, and that gave everything context. By morning, really, the tragedy had been encapsulated in one guy with a beard and a kidney problem.

He was like anyone else, really: he wanted fame, and he wanted money. It’s tough to be afraid of someone who shares the same life goals as a typical Los Angeleno.

That’s how I justified it, at least. That’s how bin Laden got pushed outside the bubble, too.

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I think about what I would do, sometimes. I think about a young group of men — hoodlums, thugs, gang-bangers; whatever local anchors are calling them these days — approaching me and demanding that I give them my wallet.

I think about what I’d do in that moment. There’s the part of the cortex that imagines myself the hero, the part of me willing to flatter myself. I imagine a snappy move, a quick kung-fu kick I never knew I had in me, maybe a left cross. Maybe I’d stand over one of them and throw out a movie line, maybe something just obscure enough to make him wonder how hard he’d really been hit.

Maybe I’d stand over him and say something like, “I told you: never hit with your pitching hand, Nook.”

Maybe I’d just say it and walk away.

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Then there’s the second imagineering of my run-in with the guys on the street. They demand the money. I hand them the money. And I walk away.

I just walk back into the bubble, and leave the incident where it belongs: outside.

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1. This also seems to be the underlying principle behind Facebook’s News Feed.
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2. She’d also used a Jeep to shield her from the desert when she had to pee — and then told us about the experience in unthinkably great detail. >>return to post