The day after I saw Roman Polanski's The Pianist, I logged onto a website that included the pictures of identifiable dead U.S. combat soldiers aired on Arab television but not shown by most American media.
Amid the revulsion of seeing heartbreakingly young men mutilated by bullets and exhibited as spectacle, a thousand questions came to mind. Why did I go to the trouble to look up the pictures? Why, in a world where movies like The Pianist continually represent the body in pain, would these particular pictures be withheld? Why, in a world that delights in the suffering depicted by television's "reality programming," would the media omit these scenes of reality from their war programming?
There are two usual responses to the last two questions. One claims that exhibiting the pictures is disrespectful of the dead and their families. Indeed, there is little as intimate, as private, as the gaze directed to the corpse of the beloved. Only the wound looks back; nothing is returned but the awful truth that everything, even your love, ends in pain and dies. Every other thought is momentarily disrupted by the blank eye of the dead.
Another usual response is that showing the pictures might weaken American resolve. In fact, 1972's picture of terrified Vietnamese children fleeing their napalmed village initiated popular anti-war sentiment. Somehow when the eye beholds naked suffering inflicted by one human being on another, we tend to forget politics. In the victim's fate, we see ours. In the perpetrator's face, we see ours. Grief seizes us and we just want someone to end the suffering.
Michael Waters-Bey, father of one of the dead soldiers, conveyed something of the image's power to collapse the notion that the immediate perpetrator alone is responsible for suffering. He held up a picture of his dead son Kendall before television cameras. "I want President Bush to get a good look at this, a really good look," he said. "This is the only son I had. ... This was not your son or daughter."
Of course, it seems to be equally true that bloody images of the dead can arouse anger as much as grief. Seeing the violence done by the enemy may inflame revenge. For the enemy themselves, the corpses become trophies.
The question of why I and many other Americans went in search of these particular censored images is difficult. In her latest book, Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag theorizes that it's a given of human nature that the voyeuristic impulse extends to the body in pain as much as to the erotic body. I don't doubt this. My early years as a reporter, when I often covered fatal traffic accidents, taught me how violent death draws excited crowds. For a while, too, I shot pictures for a sheriff's department of murder scenes and I remember the atmosphere always crackling.
But what is the payoff of the instinct to behold the dead? Sontag wonders if the payoff isn't a sense of safety. This is happening to others, not to me. I tend to feel that it serves something of the purpose the pagan sacrifices did. One feels almost surreally alive in the presence of a corpse. Yes, you are plunged into the reality that life can end in a flash but the very ferocity of this insight in the case of violent death heightens the personal sense of aliveness to an almost unbearable extent. Morality itself comes into being at that moment: What is the proper use of my life? Wolfgang Giegerich puts it differently: Consciousness is instantly constellated in viewing violent death. We are drawn into our humanity.
There is another concern about the exhibition of violent images. Sontag used to believe that the continual exposure to them inured us to suffering. In her new book, she recants that position. Three years in Bosnia taught her that the psyche never really becomes indifferent to images of violent death. I agree. I watched The Pianist through my fingers, even though I have seen countless fictional and real images of the Holocaust.
But there is something, too, to Jean Baudrillard's notion that images can cut us off from the "real." As simulacra, they become more real than the actual. He argues, from a metaphorical perspective, that the Gulf War didn't really occur, for example. He means that what we saw, what we understand to be the war, wasn't actuality at all. We saw a bloodless videogame. As far as you and I are concerned, what actually happened, like the monstrous bombing of men retreating from Kuwait, didn't really occur.
The same is occurring again in some respects. We have pictures this time. But the "embedded" reporters are transformed by their situation into champions of military. Their work is highly censored. Anyone in their circumstance would be similarly affected. But the result is reporting that asks very few hard questions and presents only a very fractured view of the war.
To look up pictures that disrupt the fiction of prettier representation helps us recover our humanity and our conscience. The withholding of them hardens the heart.
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