Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 September 2014

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'Fun' based on tragedies like Twin Towers or Titanic is no laughing matter

Hijacked United Airlines Flight 175 from Boston crashes into the south tower of the World Trade Center and explodes at 9:03 a.m. on September 11, 2001 in New York City.

We all make light of the hard things in life. Laughter is the cure for a lot of things. But, sometimes, we go too far without thinking about the consequences.

Two university students in England decided to dress up as exploding Twin Towers for Halloween this year. Their costumes displayed the 2001 attacks in the US, which killed some 3,000 people.

The women's fancy dress was quickly condemned by their university, but not before American news outlets picked up the story, meaning that survivors of 9/11 had time to form their own opinions.

Artie Van Why, who witnessed the horror at the World Trade Center, said the women's costumes were "offensive, appalling, disrespectful and, when you get right down to it, just plain stupid".

The women apologised, saying it was intended to depict a modern-day horror, but Artie said they were just trying to "cover their asses". He's right.

And this is not the only recent example of insensitivity towards past events. Last month, an advert suggested that had passengers onboard Titanic drank Red Bull they would have survived, because "Red Bull gives you wings". Clearly, whoever dreamt that one up is a few screws short of a toolbox.

Of course, jokes will always proliferate -- even in the aftermath of a disaster. But it's highly unlikely any organisation would dare to poke fun at a recent disaster, which prompts the question: when does tragedy become a suitable case for humour?

I showed the Red Bull advert to members of the World Trade Center Survivors Network. I wanted to know how they would feel if -- now, or in 100 years' time -- a similar advert suggested that those in the Twin Towers would have survived by drinking Red Bull and flying away.

Richard LoPresti, who witnessed people jumping from the towers, said he would never joke about Titanic -- no matter how long ago the disaster happened.

Artie Van Why found the advert "disrespectful". He said he couldn't imagine there ever being a time when it would be acceptable to joke about 9/11.

Others said they would be "horrified" if the advert featured the Twin Towers, while some were more understanding about the likelihood of future generations making light of the attacks.

Speaking to these people, who have lost family members and watched people jump to their deaths, my opinion of the Red Bull advert grew more hostile, and I wondered if we have become desensitised to past events.

Consultant clinical psychologist Dr Michael Paterson says we can become desensitised to past events because we have no emotional connection with them.

Una Reilly, co-founder of the Belfast Titanic Society, says all living links to Titanic have been lost since the death of the last survivor, Millvina Dean, in 2009. People may now feel freer to joke about the sinking.

As a nation, we love "gallows humour" and we joke about difficult situations to make ourselves feel better. Look at how TV comedies, like Blackadder Goes Forth and 'Allo 'Allo, poke fun at the two World Wars. Humour based around these is a staple of our media diet; making fun of Adolf Hitler part of our culture.

It will be interesting to see what people dress up as next year for Halloween -- considering it's the centenary of the start of the First World War. Let's hope people show more sense.

* Ricky Thompson is studying newspaper journalism at Belfast Metropolitan College

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