About 10 years ago, my boss took me to the emergency room. Nothing huge, just a bleeding chin that needed three stitches after my spur-of-the-moment attempt to make the Olympic parking-lot diving team. You know, the usual.
On his way back, he drove by an accident. He slowed down, as drivers do, and took a glance. So did another driver, one who found the accident much more fascinating than the road.
And like that, my boss’s car had a keepsake.
We’ve all seen it. We all know it happens. And most of us shake our heads in disbelief – until we’re the ones going past the car crash or the house fire. All of a sudden, you just can’t look away. You have to see more.
You’ve joined the rubberneck brigade.
The word’s an interesting one. “Rubbernecking” originally described the out-of-town tourist, the sort whose head swiveled at every building taller than two stories. Now it’s become the badge of the morbidly curious and the curse of the highway patrol; at least one study suggests that gaping at crashes is almost as likely to cause an accident as yapping on a cell phone.
And since the Big Flood, it’s become a pastime for some that’s second only to Broncomania.
You know what I’m talking about.
The driver who swings around abruptly on the highway, to get a better look at washed-out homes.
The passerby who has to climb over or cut through a snow fence, to see if the Greenway is really as damaged as the city says.
The folks who hike around barriers and across still-dangerous country to where people are rebuilding – not to offer any help, but just to see the sights.
At one story I covered, a frustrated Longmont Dam Road resident called it “disaster tourism.” Some of the things her neighbors wanted to call it couldn’t be printed in a family newspaper.
I call it heartless.
I recognize the irony of a reporter saying this. After all, part of my job is to go to places where the worst is happening and see it for myself. I’ve stood by families as their home burned to cinders. I’ve watched the water rise in neighborhoods and walked through mud-ruined trailers with their residents afterward. I’ve even seen emergency workers drape the sheet over drivers whose luck ran out one dangerous day.
It’s never comfortable. Any of it.
I draw lines, of course. I never get in the way of emergency workers. I try not to do anything stupidly dangerous. I approach victims carefully, trying to be a neighbor as much as a journalist. And if they want me out of their face and off their property, I respect that and go.
I’m not just there randomly. I’m doing a job. In a way, I’m there so 500 other “tourists” don’t have to be.
And always, always, I make myself remember these are people in pain. Not just fodder for a lookyloo.
Maybe I haven’t convinced you. That’s OK. Sometimes I don’t always convince myself, either. But one thing I am convinced of – that callous curiosity carries a price tag.
There isn’t a place for it. Not here. Not anywhere.
It’s natural to want to see what the flood did. (If it wasn’t, our paper would have just wasted a lot of time and money.) But safely. Humanely. Please.
If getting a closer look makes you do something dangerous, it’s not worth it.
If getting a closer look puts you in the way of people trying to help, it’s not worth it.
If getting a closer look means stepping on someone’s heart, it’s really not worth it.
Have a heart to go with those eyes. Remember that these are still our friends, our neighbors. Treat them with the love and respect they deserve.
Let’s have fewer rubber necks and more open arms.