Are the Walking Dead Listening?

I’m mad 4 science, but I’m also mad 4 science fiction , so let me take a moment to talk about one of my favorite SF programs, The Walking Dead. Based on the comics of the same name, it has become one of AMC’s biggest hits, and has won wide ranging and well deserved praise for its depiction of a band of survivors desperately trying to survive in a world of flesh eating zombies. One of the show’s most complex and savage characters is a good ol’ boy named Daryl Dixon, portrayed by Norman Reedus. Daryl is really good at killing Walkers (show speak for zombies). During the course of the show he developed a habit of cutting off their ears as trophies and wearing them as necklace. Remember what I said about savage? From a creative point of view, it’s a brilliant way of encapsulating volumes about the character every time a viewer sees the necklace.

If the show’s creators had left it there, there wouldn’t be a problem. As gruesome as the ear necklace thing is, it is an artistic expression and well done. Unfortunately they took it one step too far. Game makers Terminal Velocity have developed a video game based on the show. It’s a first-person- shooter (surprise) where you can actually play as Daryl Dixon. The company decided to create a little buzz for the game at this year’s Comic-Con. Towards that end, they started offering reproductions of Daryl’s ear necklace to the first 100 people who preordered the game. That’s right, order the game now and you too can strut around town wearing a garland of disembodied ears. Wait until all the guys see this. Well I’ve got news for you, it’s not just the guys who are going to see it. A lot of people are going to see it, and a lot of them are going to be offended by it, and you know what? There are more than a few of them that have every right to be offended.

You see, the whole ear necklace thing isn’t just something the show’s creators came up with. It was real, all too real. During the Vietnam war there was an elite unit of the 101st Airborne Division known as Tiger Force. In the spring of 1967, they were dropped behind enemy lines to gather intelligence, but they did more than that. No one seems to be sure exactly what triggered it, but for whatever reason, the soldiers of Tiger Force went on a rampage. They tortured and killed prisoners in direct violation of the Geneva Convention. They dropped grenades into bunkers they knew were full of women and children. They burned whole villages and shot unarmed farmers indiscriminately, and, oh yes, they took trophies. They cut off the ears of their victims and wore them around their necks as necklaces. Although no one was prosecuted, what Tiger Force did meets everyone’s definition of a war crime.

Now, just for a moment, imagine that you are a Vietnamese-American kid. Imagine that like many all-American kids you love comic books, so you decide to go to Comic-Con. Imagine that your doting Vietnamese grandmother is nice enough to give you ride. Now imagine what you’re going to say to Grandma, who may have seen her parents or siblings slaughtered by American soldiers wearing ear necklaces, when she spots people walking in and out of the con wearing the same type of necklaces. She’s not going to care that they’re not real ears, that they’re only latex props. She’s not going to care that it’s only a promotion for a game. She’s not going to care that Robert Kirkman, the show’s creator, wasn’t born until after the war ended. All she’s going to care about is the pain and horror that comes rushing back.

If you don’t think that could ever happen, I’ve got news for you. When the war ended, thousands of Vietnamese refugees came to this country. Between 1981 and 2000, over half a million of them came and, just like your ancestors and mine, made this country their home. They built new lives and contributed to their new communities. They don’t need to be reminded of atrocities by someone trying to make a buck on a video game.

Now, before you start screaming about censorship, I’m not advocating that anybody be censored. Kirkman and the makers of the game have every 1st Amendment right to make and distribute those necklaces, regardless of how ghoulish they are, but just because you have the right to do something doesn’t mean that it’s the right thing to do. It doesn’t mean that doing it won’t hurt someone, or that doing it is the humane thing to do. I don’t think there was any malicious intent. I don’t believe Kirkman or anyone else involved with the show or the game made those necklaces for the express purpose of offending anyone or causing them pain. I think it was just a dumb idea, and that no one thought out the consequences. Fortunately, it’s not too late to do the humane thing. It’s not too late for the makers of the game to apologize for what they did and to stop distributing the necklaces. It’s not too late for them to show a little compassion and to think about the consequences the next time they try to promote a game.

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