OPINION: Dark tourism is a moral gray area, especially with social media

Graphic by Katie Erickson

There’s a nifty feature on Instagram. Search up a location, and users can see all public posts that have tagged this location.

It’s an easy way to see the dozens of insincere, unfunny, disrespectful and often disturbing posts tagging Columbine High School, Auschwitz, Whitney Plantation and other sites of unspeakable tragedy and injustice.

Visits to places like these fall under the umbrella of dark tourism, which a writer for The Telegraph defines as “the appeal of sites, visitor [centers] and museums linked to atrocities and tragedy.”

Visits to places like these aren’t always bad. The purpose of the visit and the wishes of local residents can make them acceptable.

But if you’re going to these sites just to document your presence there on social media, don’t bother going.

Infamously, Logan Paul, the popular YouTuber, visited Aokigahara Forest in Japan — tragically renowned for the number of people who take their own lives there — and filmed a dead body. Disrespectful visits like Paul’s aren’t uncommon.

In March this year, the Auschwitz Memorial and Museum had to issue an official statement on its Twitter kindly asking people to stop taking photos of themselves balancing on the train tracks leading into the infamous death camp.

Columbine High School has a security team that frequently is distracted from their primary tasks by the 150-plus visitors who show up every month to “pay their respects.”

Even I have a very old and insensitive family photo on my phone of my parents, my sister and I beaming in front of the 9/11 memorial in New York City.

In some cases, it’s fine to travel to these destinations. When official memorials are set up, it can be a show of support to come to them. But to post photos in a way that ignores the tragedies that took place in that location or to loudly document one’s presence there, is to contribute to the erasure of horrific histories by covering them with whimsy, vintage filters and insincere, humorous captions.

Dark tourism isn’t always a physical act. Musical artists from Jay-Z to Eminem have referenced Columbine in disrespectful ways. The same has been done with the Holocaust, 9/11 and the Sandy Hook Shooting. In the same way that tourists crowd sites of terror and tragedy for likes and retweets, musicians are making light of these events to turn a profit.

Unjust profiteering exists with physical dark tourism as well. Take, for instance, the case of the Hurricane Katrina Tour, which continues to be a popular New Orleans activity for tourists long after most of the rubble has been removed.

Tour bus operators reap the benefits of these natural disasters by taking people through ruined streets, according to The New York Times. And what little money that does go towards rebuilding the neighborhood comes from the tourists themselves.

Furthermore, sites like these that are still functioning, such as Columbine High School, should never be destinations of tourists — regardless of intentions. When residents of a place where an act of terror and cruelty has occurred are attempting to move on, any dark tourism that occurs opens and agitates still-raw wounds.

Eamon Morris PZ ’22 is from Orange, California. As the anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre approaches, he wishes to remind people to be respectful and mindful.

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