Empathy and the Politics of the Image
On June 18, 2004, CNN reported the death of American hostage Paul Johnson Jr., an American contractor working in Saudi Arabia. He was kidnapped by militant Saudis who sought the release of al Qaeda prisoners and the departure of all ‘westerners’ from the Saudi Peninsula. When their demands were not met, they murdered Johnson by beheading him. In front of a video camera. The video of which made its way to the internet.
It has been a shocking summer. Several victims have been kidnapped and murdered on camera, their deaths then posted on various websites to be viewed and reviewed by the curious and the outraged, the believers and the hopeless. What has been surprising has been the incorporation of these images and videos into mainstream media sources like CNN and the Drudge Report, which has on its site still images of the murder victims, taken by the murderers (no, I will not link to them.) When and why did it become acceptable to talk about beheadings, to show images of murder, in the mainstream media? It has certainly provoked me to do a lot of thinking about my own humanism, about the conception of freedom I have, about my own relationship to the current war, and about what my questions and answers say about me. It also has me thinking about the internet and freedom, about the democratization of media and its distribution, and about how everything seems to be going wrong with so called new media tools.
Certainly there is a history of violent images having an impact in identifying and defining a war. For me, the singular image that stands out is the film of General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong prisoner with his handgun on the streets of Saigon. It is seared into my brain, unforgettable. Susan Sontag wrote famously about images of atrocity in her On Photography, a theory which she recently re-visited (and revised) in Regarding The Pain Of Others. Craig Seligman, in his recent analysis of Sontag’s writing Sontag and Kael: Opposites Attract Me, quotes Sontag’s work, outlining the central thesis in Sontag’s revised theory of these images of atrocity.
“Let the atrocious images haunt us. Even if they are only tokens, and cannot possibly encompass most of the reality to which they refer, they still perform a vital function. The images say: This is what human beings are capable of doing, may volunteer to do, enthusiastically, self-righteously. Don’t forget.” (page 28, Seligman.)
Of course, Sontag was discussing still photography, but I believe her theory applies equally to the videos of murder that have been circulating online. What has been haunting me is the truth in her words, the absolute resonance of this idea that we must look at these images in order to truly feel what we, as human beings, are capable of. Let them haunt us, she says. I am truly shaken by looking, by what is there to be seen.
That violence is a result of war is no surprise, but the central tenant of the strategy of propaganda in America since Viet Nam has been the exclusion of graphic representations of violence. Instead of seeing victims of violence, or the activity of actual violence, the American idea of war has been shaped by simulated violence and representation. We see the image of the animated Cruise Missile flying over the animated map of Baghdad, exploding soundlessly, falsely. We see video of distant bombs, a bird’s-eye view above the impact of ‘smart bombs,’ sand-storm charges across empty deserts. “Shock and Awe” as an ultra-budget Jerry Bruckheimer sequence. We do not see the results of this violence. We see only what we are shown. Truly violent images have historically called into question the moral necessity of war. Certainly, much of the outrage over (and the inherent power of) films like Fahrenheit 911 and The Control Room has been centered on the power of the violent images that these films show us, seemingly for the first time. We see American soldiers wounded and killed, the devastation of war on civilians in Iraq, the murder of journalists. It is the power of these images, grotesque and immediate, that lends credibility to the outrage expressed by the filmmakers who utilize them. After all, who can honestly look at such things and not begin to ask the question “Is this worth it?”
It is the deeply personal, empathetic experience of imagining one’s self in the violent situation being viewed that generates this power. In any humanist’s mind (and I do consider myself a humanist,) questions of ideology, policy, and profit are immediately rendered irrelevant by the empathetic experience of seeing another human being suffer. There are people (desensitized to violence by the unreality of violent images in the media, films, and games) who are able to brush aside humanist concern and claim a rational justification for violence. Justification of war aside, there is certainly a lack of empathy in any such response, a rejection of the humanity of the self. The viewer cannot understand his own mortality, his own suffering. Something is missing. The blanket acceptance of the violent image has become necessary to avoid introspection. To not feel for a victim of violence when it has been abstracted into text or an animated news item is bad enough. To witness the image of real violence and not be shaken is something wholly other.
And so, putting aside political justifications for and against our current actions in Iraq and Afghanistan (two separate questions with two separate answers in my mind,) nothing I have seen has haunted me as deeply as the image of the hostage Paul Johnson Jr. There is something extremely specific and personal in the murder of powerless hostages. Though I refuse to watch them, I have been unable to sleep at night thinking about the staging of these murders on camera, the specific structure of the images, the positioning of the figures in the frame. In the photographs, the murderers invariably stand with guns in their hands, masked and anonymous, in front of political banners and flags. These are the postures of totalitarianism, of absolutism. But they are also the poses of the thug, the thoughtless heel, the follower. These are the same poses seen in images of colonial domination, of fascist soldiers, the aesthetic of the street gang. It is the stance of the powerless, impersonating the idea of power. It is hollow. And there is the poor victim. I see myself there, every time I see one of these photographs. I imagine the blindfold, the language I don’t understand. I am on my knees there with him, bound, powerless. Death lingers just outside of the frame. It feels ridiculous and inevitable.
What strikes me mostly deeply about myself in these moments is my intense desire to respond to this level of personal atrocity through violent intervention. Someone has to do something. That is to say, if the world the proponents of al Qaeda wish me to envision and participate in includes flying airplanes into crowded office buildings, suicide murder, and murdering civilian hostages, I see no other choice but to endorse the intervention of whatever power is required to eliminate the possibility of that world. This is, for me, a simple choice. I would rather live in the world of reasoned use of force than the world of irrational murder under a theocratic totalitarianism. Of course, the line between that war and the War in Iraq can be drawn (and I do draw it), but I also do not hesitate to throw my support behind the suppression of this murderous conception of the world. No humanist could afford to see that idea of ‘civilization’ come to fruition.
And so, because the reductive politics of patriotism, liberalism, and conservatism seek simple, easily digestible proclamations regarding the idea of war and the use of violence, I am left to grapple with these feelings in a vacuum. There is no national discussion because a national discussion about the proper application of power and the use of force would cloud the issue by complicating it, expanding it into its true dimensions. There is no examination of the use of these images on news programs and on websites either. It is understood implicitly that the exposure of ‘violence by others’ and the abstraction of American violence will generate more political will to do something. Certainly, the Drudge Report wouldn’t post images of the body of a domestic murder victim on the site. These pictures are there with a purpose. They are there to inspire compliance. This is the locus of my guilt, and the genius of this specific application of propaganda. In order to express my support for the reasoned use of force, I must implicitly recognize the role of violent images in generating my political will. That is, my reaction justifies the propaganda.
This is why we fight, and I recognize the necessity of a specific fight. But that can’t make me complicit in all fights. By justifying these images, do I implicitly justify the use of all propaganda? Am I simply a target audience for violence? Is the horror I am experiencing simply another way to reduce my politics to the realm of unreason, eliminating the validity of my ideas? Does my invalidation diminish the realty of the violence contained in the image?
I don’t know. I just know I am haunted by what “human beings are capable of doing, may volunteer to do, enthusiastically, self-righteously.” I can’t forget.