These past few weeks have underlined the power of the gruesome visual image.
For months there were news briefs about prison perversity in Iraq, but the story would not have vaulted to the top of America’s agenda without the photographs with which we are now so familiar. In the Middle East, the Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera news stations showed footage of Palestinians playing catch and soccer with Israeli body parts, and Palestinians displayed bits of flesh and a severed Israeli head as some sort of trophy testifying to Israel’s weakness.
Al-Qaeda released photos and video showing Nick Berg being decapitated, and then his severed head being held by its hair. Although American TV wouldn’t show that, WABC radio played a blood-curdling 30-second audio of Berg’s final screams.
By contrast, the Bush administration has tried to sanitize this war, confiscating photos of returning caskets containing U.S. soldiers.
Most everyone on all sides of our modern war has come to the conclusion that the magnitude of this war, and its propaganda efforts, eludes words alone; that what is happening must be seen, or heard, or hidden, in order to transform the consciousness of the targeted audience.
Everyone seems to understand the power of images except one country — Israel. Its Web site contains 11 videos relating the stories of the dead and the maimed, but there is nothing more recent than January, and the most recent still photographs are two years old.
The Jerusalem Post (May 12) reported that Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said Israel would not display any of the recent images from Gaza. We will not be shown the dead and abused soldiers, and we will not see the inside of the Hatuel car after that Jewish family — including a 2-year-old strapped into a car seat — was executed at point-blank range by Palestinians.
Instead, Israel is offering the equivalent of a high school film on hygiene, something to “show the Arab world what Israel is really about,” Shalom told Israel Radio. As if showing the Arab world how Israel sees itself — emphasizing “academia … culture and interfaith dialogue,” according to Israel’s Arabic Web site — will change anything about the Arab perception of Israel as a condescending occupier and decadent Western implant.
Israel wants pity and sympathy, but Ilan Goren in Maariv (May 12) wrote that “the decision made by leading Israeli news networks and the country’s Foreign Ministry to avoid airing the horrific pictures from Gaza led to [the] lack of interest internationally.” A Jew who wants to see what death by terrorism actually looks like must turn to Arab Web sites or images relayed by e-mail.
What Jewish victim in 1944 wouldn’t have wanted photographs of Auschwitz distributed to every Jewish home in the world, if only to bear witness and break hearts, if not to warn? But images of this modern war are inevitably withheld because the media consensus is that you, dear reader, are too tender to bear witness. The belief exists that our children, who are thoroughly unprotected from violence and death on television and in the movies, who can watch Auschwitz almost daily on the History Channel, might be traumatized by images of war in 2004.
Jimmy Breslin in Newsday (May 13) said of his media colleagues, “We are at the end of an old way of telling the public the news of the day … Just about everybody with the curiosity you want in news readers” saw everything there was to see about Iraq on the Internet or Arab cable channels that are broadcast daily in New York. The only people protected, Breslin said, are “the last old newspaper readers or network television news watchers.”
Breslin wrote that he recently lectured at the Columbia School of Journalism about how the Berg beheading may “scare and sicken editors [but] the lively people who want to know about the times in which they live want to see everything.”
He warned the future editors of America, “If something is too gruesome, too ominous” for your taste, “it matters not. The Internet will decide what you print, and if you don’t care, if you want to stay in the past, then stay there with your dead newspaper.”
Andrew Sullivan, columnist for the London Times, wrote: “If we are in a propaganda war, as we are, we need to be as ruthless in publicizing the murders committed by our enemy as we are in exposing the abuses committed by our own.” Has anyone been less ruthless in this regard than Israel?
“The reality of war in all its aspects needs to be reported and photographed,” wrote Michael Getler, ombudsman of the Washington Post (May 9). “That is the patriotic, and necessary, thing to do in a democracy.”
The Jordan Times (May 9) wrote: “Never in the history of human rights have we seen such images.” Not the images of the mutilated Israeli soldiers, nor the Hatuel family, nor the headless Berg, all of which we haven’t seen, but the images from the Iraqi prison, which we have seen.
The Boston Globe (May 14) offered an opinion piece by H.D.S. Greenway in which he said that “humiliation” is a major reason that people turn to terrorism, and “This may be particularly true of the Arab world, in which a sense of dignity is so important to cultural well-being.”
Who worries about Jewish humiliation after the remains of Israeli soldiers are paraded through the streets, or the humiliation of being unable to protect Israeli children after more than a decade of murdered children?
The New York Times (May 13) reported that “Jewish law holds that the entire body should be buried if possible,” but what would be a humiliation to an Arab seems not to concern the humiliation watchers when it comes to Jews.
An editorial in Yediot Achronot (May 13) declared that “desecrating the bodies of those who have fallen is an attempt to erase the image of God which is stamped on that person, and a complete negation of their fellow man.” Yet, “It is no coincidence that those who label Jews as ‘monkeys and pigs’ are those who dismember our fighters’ bodies. Those who participated in the atrocity are savages.”
The editors of Haaretz (May 13) refused to let themselves feel humiliated. They wrote: “Millions of the Jewish people were lost and have no grave or tombstone, but this in no way detracts from their memory or dignity; this same nation has turned the concern with the burial of bodies and body parts into some strange fetish that overshadows common sense as well as simple security considerations.”
Surely this war will end soon enough, if only we can get the terrorists to log on and learn how much Israel has done for academia and interfaith dialogue.