Thursday, June 08, 2006

Pictures of dead bad guys attract readers

So Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is dead. Don't believe the news? Look at him! True, he looks like he just went five seconds with the 1988 version of Mike Tyson; but dead is dead and we won't quibble.

And while the death of the Iraqi equivalent of Osama bin Laden (sorry, that wasn't Saddam) is cause for celebration for the non-terrorist faction of the world, the endless waving of the death photo by the western world speaks perhaps too truthfully about how we want to view this war. Specifically, it allows us to believe that only the bad guys are the ones so severely affected by battle.

Which is, of course, what a lot of Americans desperately want to believe. And that's understandable; after all, who wouldn't derive some sweet satisfaction from seeing a true heel get what he deserves? That pained face will definitely not sit well with his virgins! For many, the fact that the corpse is even recognizable suggests that he got off easily.

On the other hand, what American wants to consider that huge numbers of their country's soldiers--husbands, wives, sons and daughters--went the same way, if not worse? No one does, which is part of the reason why so many Americans are sadly detached from the realities of what's going on.

Critics of the Iraq-related media consistently cite softball coverage that underrepresents the real costs of war in terms of human life. They argue that greater exposure to the war's more graphic elements would shock people back into reality. I certainly agree with this, though I would take exception to those who argue that this photo is proof of such a thing.

Indeed, when the media exclusively displays dead pictures of enemies, it only serves to further dehumanize war. The American populace becomes desensitized when the only bloody photos that ever receive big airplay are the ones showing terrorist cadavers. While I'm not calling for equally macabre photos of American soldiers, I do think that a little editorial balance (a la Vietnam) would more accurately portray what a violent disaster this war has been for every side involved.

Domestic detachment aside, what other ramifications will the photo have for perception of the war effort? Probably not what most of us have in mind. While the photo could be seen in its own context as proof of a genuine success in Iraq, in the long run it might actually backfire.

The endless parading of such a picture understandably perplexes those who try to wrap their brains around America's self-proclaimed status as a "culture of life." Like, for example, the Iraqis for whom we supposedly fight to liberate. Even for the majority of Iraqis who won't miss this jerk, the showcasing of such carnage has to seem, well, unseemly. As it is, the pic overshadows the actual report, which doesn't bode well for our perceived priorities. Death, even when concerning a wretched excuse for a human being, is always a delicate affair. Celebrate too little, and you're accused of being unpatriotic. Celebrate too much, and you risk further emboldening your enemies. My advice to both the media and the White House would be to tread lightly in both respects. We won a battle, but the war and peace are still wildly unsecured. If we are truly vested in liberation and stability, then we should apply the appropriate restraint that is required of such a serious undertaking. A tall order, yes, but one that must be done on America's part to improve relations with the world.

I certainly won't miss al-Zarqawi. But I do miss a true sense of perspective.


Cajun Tiger said...

By more perspective, I assume you mean more pictures of the Haditha incident, Abu Garib, and other things that make the US look bad while continuing to not show all the atrocities Zarqawi and his ilk committed every day here.

Violet said...

I must say I'm really impressed with your take on this. I've been similarly confused about rhetoric surrounding the war. On the one hand, you get the "liberation" and "democracy" line. On the other, you get the "shock and awe" line. These seem incompatible with one another. While wars are occasionally necessary, they are also divisive, offensive, costly, hazardous, and prone to breeding other wars. And we can lose sight of our best principles and accountability, which seems to be your most pervasive point in your blog. Nicely argued!