Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Call of Duty

The fallout from the riots following the Monday (April 27) funeral of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died earlier this month in Baltimore police custody, has been roiling on social media ever since angry crowds began torching vehicles and looting shops in the city.

The chatter has followed a familiar trajectory: First, the breathless posting of breaking news from a range of sources – each revealing a sliver of the poster’s own sociopolitical leanings.

Second, the accusations, which include railing against police discrimination and brutality or the U.S. gun culture, issuing political and media recriminations, and calling for individual responsibility and self control, and finally, the various calls to action.

These range from the passive – “thoughts and prayers for the people of Baltimore” (acknowledging that these can have enormous power if they are not merely empty platitudes) – to the active, which include incitements to “fight the power” or work to effect social change.

This last point has been interesting, as people have been sharing many ideas about how to act, from championing the cause of racial justice on social media to lobbying politicians or working to redress social ills by funding school lunches, providing pro bono legal support and the like.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, the deadly April 25 earthquake in Nepal – most recent figures put the death toll at upwards of 4,600 – has provoked a similar cycle of reaction.

A  flurry of “pray for Nepal” memes has been followed by finger-pointing accusations of inaction and exhortations to “send money, not prayers”, offering links to a range of charities.

In times of natural and manmade disaster, what is our call of duty?

And what does call of duty even mean?

Type the term into any search engine, and you’ll get the data for the Call of Duty first-person shooter video game franchise, in which players can pretend to be muscle-bound soldiers taking out “targets” (aka “people”) in various conflicts, from World Wars I and II to the present.

The series is wildly popular, with upwards of 140 million copies sold.

According to Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that helps families make smart media choices, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare “is rated ‘Mature’ for portraying highly authentic modern military combat with realistic gore”.

“There are distressing situations involving torture, execution, and the gruesome deaths of primary protagonists to whom the player will likely have grown attached,” according to the website’s review. “This material is more intense and disturbing than in earlier games of this series, and a diverse selection of cuss words is clearly audible.”

The game scores five out of five for violence.

In countries where conflict has become a part of daily life, such as Syria, Iraq and Yemen, to name just a few, there are many other calls of duty that demand our attention.

Humanitarian organizations operating in war zones or areas of natural disaster such as Nepal call on us to help them provide food, shelter and the funding and expertise to restore basic services such as electricity and water.

They ask us to support doctors and teachers and to advocate for the rights of refugees.

It is not merely warriors that are needed in times of crisis, but money, practical assistance and advocacy, moral and spiritual support and moms, such as the Baltimore mother whose videotaped attempts to drag her son out of the fray went viral on news and social media.

A call of duty in times of trouble can take many forms, but it is important to remember that most do not involve real or simulated violence.

This billboard appeared on Charles Street in Baltimore after Gray's death in police custody.

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