A Subway Horror That Resides in Us All

This story is not just a story about a man and the person who pushed him to his death on the tracks of the subway. There are reverberations from that tragic incident that will continue to run through our minds for days, weeks, and maybe months.

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It's the rare commuter who hasn't been considering his or her routine daily commute in a far different light this week, after learning the deeply disturbing news that 58-year-old Ki-Suk Han of Queens had been killed by an oncoming Q train at a Times Square subway station after being pushed to the tracks by another man. New York City police identified the alleged pusher Wednesday afternoon as Naeem Davis, and they arrested and charged him with attempted murder after he made implicating statements about himself to the police. But this story is not just a story about a man and the man who pushed him, or about the punishment for that crime. There are social reverberations from Monday's incident that will continue to run through our minds for days, weeks, and maybe months, lessening in intensity but still there in the background cloth of how we feel about life in this and any city. These are unresolved questions about, in the most general sense, humanity. They're questions of how not only members of the media but also members of a society at large should behave in these circumstances, as The New York Times' David Carr writes in a piece on the incident and its aftermath today. Part of this discussion is, of course, about the media. As Carr writes, "the decision to put the image on the The Post’s cover and frame it with a lurid headline that said 'this man is about to die'? That part didn’t happen quickly. The treatment of the photo was driven by a moral and commercial calculus that was sickening to behold." He concludes in his thoughtful piece, "I’d like to think that the people’s right to know will be leavened by the people’s right to live in a world where mayhem is not a commodity."

After that photo was published, the Internet and beyond came alive with angry people. People angry that the photo was published, angry that they had to see it in their bodegas and on their screens. Angry that it was taken, angry that the Post paid for it, angry that the photographer took it (and didn't instead help the victim), angry that the photographer claimed he was taking the shots (many of them) in order to alert the train conductor of the fallen passenger with his flash, angry that his "sorry" appeared too little and too late, angry that no one else helped. Angry that any of this happened at all—that there are people pushing other people into subway tracks, that we might all be victims, that the assumptions of safety we live under are simply assumptions after all. The code in this case did not hold, and so we're angry that it could have been any of us, really. It's not surprising that all the anger had to go somewhere, and it could even be argued that the Post and photographer R. Umar Abbasi, who took the shot, very nearly did us a favor by allowing us to send some of our rage their way, in most people's minds quite justifiably so.

But this isn't just about a subway murder, or about the media's responsibility in such cases. The questions the incident and the photo bring up are also about our fears, about the way we live and expect to live, about courage and cowardice, and about how quickly a moment in which all is normal can change to something tragic, horrifying, and possibly fatal. The discussions about this photo are both basically and quite abstractly about death; these are existential questions.

If we could separate the "art" of the photo from everything else we know; if it was something staged, a moment of performance in a movie or a painting done from one's imagination, we would say without a doubt that it was powerful. This is what art is supposed to be, no? It should make us feel, it should make us think, it should, maybe, make us hurt. But in this case it's real, and was taken by a real man, who was there capturing the moments just before another real man's death. It's hard to make the feeling I have thinking about that match with any sense I have of the word "art."

Let's take it beyond a photographer who hit a payday by being on the scene and capturing something on film that most of us pray we'll never be a witness to. Though it happens fortunately rarely, falling or being pushed into the subway tracks is one of the commonly held great fears of city living. Like a plane crash, when it does happen it is not a small event. It is often tragic and both physically and emotionally disruptive to not only the victim but also to the witnesses of the event and to the city at large. And when it ends as well as we could hope—no one dies—there are extreme reactions as well: We laud the subway heroes who thought, or didn't think, but simply jumped, and succeeded. We wonder: Would we have done the same? What would we do if we were victim; what would we do, almost as horribly, if we were witness? Would we be a subway hero, or would we take the other course—run away, hide, shield our eyes, switch quickly to another train and get out of there as fast as we could? Would we stand and document; would we freeze? Would we try to help, and fail? And if we didn't try, could we live with ourselves afterward? Note the surge in articles explaining what to do if one falls or is pushed into the subway tracks. While there's no real answer, at least not from an official MTA perspective, this is a question that we, reminded again of the fleeting nature of life, hope vainly to prepare for, to get ahead of it, this one time. You can plan ahead—except what that image on the front page of the Post tells us is, you can't. We just don't know.

This is not the only photo of the moments before death that has angered the public, motivating censures and condemnations of the people and papers who made the choice to publish such an image. In the moments following the September 11 attack in Libya, The L.A. Times, among other outlets, published a photo on their front page of Ambassador Christopher Stevens, gravely wounded and appearing very near death. As with the subway image, at the point of publication, it was known that the subject had died. But both photos capture the moment before that. It's a strange parallel photographic reality; a life forever on the verge of death. An image of death is stagnant, forever, unchangeable: It also, in most cases, though there appear to be growing exceptions, is something clearly on the forbidden side of the line, across which editors will not tread, or will at least take care to add a warning label if they do. But an image of life, in most cases, is fine. So what of the grey area of just before, when the viewer knows the outcome, not necessarily clear in the photo, that arose as little as one minute later?

Complaints that these sorts of images are too "graphic," as Carr writes, don't really track—"Photographs of the dead are graphic, but they are of people on the other side, the ones that are beyond hope. Here there was no blood, no carnage, only someone who is doomed, but still among us," he explains. Graphic is a word we're used to seeing attached to images of war, crime, dead bodies; photographs of violence or brutality that's already taken place, or in the act of happening—to some extent, those are types of photos we've also grown sadly rather "used to." In the case of the subway photo, though, we're pre-death, pre-tragedy. And yet, as with Eddie Adams' famous photo of a general executing a Viet Cong prisoner, we know what's about to happen, which makes the image no less jarring—in fact, it makes it more so. The horror is not confined to the photo; it's in us, too, and we bring what we know to that photo when we look at it. Maybe we can't look away from it because of that. I agree with Carr that "We are all implicated by this photo, not just the man who took it," because I think the photo asks the extremely discomfiting question, "What would you do?" I think a lot of us—myself included—can't figure out a way to answer that question in any way that makes us feel better, not only about ourselves, but about humanity.

Clearly, the greatest tragedy here is the victim, but events like these send waves through the rest of us, as we attempt to grapple with the idea of a man, alive, going about his day-to-day business, just another citizen of this place, just like us—and the fact that seconds later, everything changed, he was not rescued, and then he was dead. Death. We cannot control it, we don't know when it will happen or how, but it will inevitably happen to us someday, too. When it does, we hope and maybe pray, it will not be like this. These are all things we think of when we look at the image emblematic of a story that transcends victim and pusher. Abassi's photo says it quite exactly: Han was once alive. We see his back, his arms, his head facing the train. We do not see what happened afterward. Afterward, he was dead.

We can't change that any more than we can take back seeing the images we've seen, images we may think were wrong to put forth and wrong to take. Carr writes, "The picture of a man alone on a track in one of the most crowded cities in the world is a reminder that when bad things happen, we are often very much alone. The photographer did not put down his camera and attempt to intervene, but no one else on that platform set aside their fears and chose to act, either." It's hard to see it less cynically, perhaps, given that Han was killed, given that most people seem united in their distaste for the Post's cover, and their distaste for the photographer, too. But on the other side of the cynicism there can be hope, I think, and not only hope but a moral motivation to try to be better next time. Instead of looking at that photo and feeling angry—it is there. It is done—we can use it to help us decide what we would do, and to choose the right thing. We can realize that but for luck, we might be there, too, alone and terrified, or on the safe side of the platform, ready to run or capitalize on the moment. We can realize it doesn't have to be that way, because we are all neighbors in the places where we live, and we can support and help each other instead of "doing our jobs" or fleeing. That we're better together than we are alone is how I choose to read this photo, because I think that's healthier than simply being angry. We can't do anything about death, but we can do something about the way we live.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.