We have become a culture that is obsessed with knowing. Our age, with the technology we have at our disposal, is supposed to be different than the ones that came before. There is a sense that all the mysteries of the past can be solved, that gaps in our knowledge are the result of insufficient resources and incurious, casual minds. If there's anything the information age has brought us, it is the implicit understanding that information, because it is everywhere, can thus tell us everything.
This is the single organizing principle of our age: The sense that there is an inalienable truth, and that we can find it. DNA evidence. Targeted micro-marketing. Cognitive profiling. Data journalism. Instant replay. An undocumented incident that might have been dismissed as folklore or happenstance in the past is pored over for clues now. A meteor appears out of nowhere? Dozens of Russians have dashboard cameras to document it. A plane falls from the sky and lands in the Hudson River? Photos of it are loaded to Twitter before 95 percent of the country even knows what Twitter is. A couple doesn't give a foul ball to kid who wants it and they're excoriated on the Today show the next day. Not knowing is not acceptable. We can access our collective power to find out what happened, and why.
And a nightmarish accident happens on a dirt racetrack on Saturday night. A man -- a boy, really -- dies. Someone captures it with a cellphone. This has to provide us answers. This has to give us some truth. This has to give us some justice.
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Shortly after Kevin Ward Jr., a 20-year-old sprint car racer, was killed after being struck by a car driven by NASCAR star Tony Stewart, Sporting News writer Bob Pockrass, a respected racing journalist, filed a story about the incident. The race -- in Canandaigua, N.Y. -- was not on television and was not heavily publicized. Before Pockrass filed his story, all that was known was that the incident had happened, it had involved Stewart, there had been some sort of confrontation and that Ward had died. (A police investigation later found no conclusive evidence to file any charges.) There was confusion about what had gone down, but the notion that there was something sinister about it had yet to gain any traction.
Pockrass' story changed that. Pockrass spoke by phone to a man named Tyler Graves, a friend of Ward's who witnessed the accident and who drove sprint cars himself. Graves told Pockrass:
"I know Tony could see him. I know how you can see out of these cars. When Tony got close to him, he hit the throttle. When you hit a throttle on a sprint car, the car sets sideways. It set sideways, the right rear tire hit Kevin, Kevin was sucked underneath and was stuck under it for a second or two and then it threw him about 50 yards."
Stewart has a reputation for being a confrontational driver, for being such a hard-nosed competitor that he would take part in a small dirt track sprint-car race the night before a NASCAR event (from which he later withdrew). Graves' quote, combined with Stewart's reputation, turned the story of a tragic accident into something nastier. What if he'd meant to do it?
And then the video came out.
Here is the video. You do not have to watch it. You will be much happier if you don't watch it. It is awful. But literally tens of millions of people have watched it, and to truly grapple with all that comes next, to have the information, you have to watch it. If you don't, your day will be better because of it. But it is central to the entire discussion of the whole incident.
All right, so if you watched it, what does this tell us? We see Ward exit the car, angrily gesturing at Stewart, whom he believes just knocked him out of the race. We see one car miss Ward, though it's impossible to tell if he had to swerve out of Ward's way, or if he even saw him at all. Then we see Stewart's car. Stewart does appear to speed up right before he hits Ward -- though it's also an assumption that that's even Stewart's engine making the noise -- and does set sideways, like Graves had said. Then Ward is hit, and it blinds and a woman screams.
I've watched this video several times. Obviously, millions of others have too; we all share in this morbid, insatiable shame. People have watched the video, and they have read Graves' quotes, and they have taken their previously held notions about Stewart's behavior on the racetrack and they have formed their opinions and, quickly thereafter, come to their own conclusions. One conclusion is that Stewart was responsible for Ward's death: That he somehow did it on purpose. This is dark and scary. But the reaction is still an effort to make sense of it all. To try to arrive at some sort of truth.
But there is no truth here. None of us, even after the video, have any idea what happened. This is a chaotic situation, at night, with cars going extremely fast, on a track that is unpredictable. There is no way a person can watch this video -- any video -- and be able to tell precisely what went on. Tyler Graves doesn't know. NASCAR doesn't know. There is a temptation to say that only one man knows, and that's Tony Stewart, but even that's presumptuous: The accident happened so quickly, even he might not know.
This is an unfathomable, unknowable tragedy. It is scarier that we don't know; it is scarier that we'll never know. So we talk and we analyze and we guess and we talk, and we will do this forever and we will get nowhere. We will never have any idea. We talk and we guess and we accuse. It is all just noise. Because without that noise, all we would hear are screams.
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