“For a long time — at least six decades — photographs have laid down the tracks of how important conflicts are judged and remembered. The Western memory museum is now mostly a visual one”—Susan Sontag
When a conservative British daily such as The Telegraph can feature a commentary (“Execution gives Saddam a martyr’s crown“) condemning the execution of Saddam Hussein, with such strong statements as: “grotesquely botched execution,” that Saddam Hussein was “shown dying with dignity and no little courage at the hands of hooded thugs,” and thus, “the martyr’s crown surely beckons,” then one can just begin to guess what the reactions would be in the colonized world. In fact, it’s not so much a matter of guessing, when there have been protests in several nations, not just in the Middle East, plus countless caustic newspaper editorials from Malaysia to North Africa–and not because Saddam Hussein had a large and adoring following. Everything about the pursuit of Saddam Hussein has shown tremendous blood lust, fierce jingoism, and most of all, a desire to humiliate the vanquished.
Huge numbers of Americans hated Saddam Hussein without really knowing anything about this man who never attacked their nation, who never invaded their soil, and who at one time was the darling of their own elites and their many wealthy business partners who dominate the Gulf states. In North America we have been told countless times that we live in “the civilized world,” by political leaders such as George W. Bush. These words should ring as loudly as they ring hollow, for they necessarily imply an other half: the uncivilized world. A war against the uncivilized world then, by force of history and custom, can easily be translated into a colonial war against “savages.”
Is there anyone left who will still protest that the world of 2007 is fundamentally different from the world of 1492, or the imperial “scramble for Africa” of the late 1800s? Would anyone still like to argue that the act of putting conquered natives on display, as part of a gory freak show, is something of the distant past? Does any scholar still use the term “post-colonial” as if it actually meant something?
Not in my lifetime have I seen the overthrow of a leader of a foreign nation resemble, in such a macabre manner, a vulgar Mafia “hit” (killing his family, blowing up his home). What I dreaded and expected from the beginning, knowing the extent to which Western culture lionizes imagery, not to mention electronic images, was for the humiliation to be televised. The act of “embedding” journalists with invading forces mandated this outcome from the outset. We were, once again, to be given a front row seat in the conquest of another nation, and this was presumably being done for our benefit. As in recent times, where spectators could see a bombing, from the point of view of the bomb, audiences would be socialized and trained to identify with the conqueror, and damn it, they were to enjoy it.
When, in the early weeks of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Iraqis broadcast video segments on television of four American soldiers who had been taken prisoner, the American forces howled about “the Geneva Convention,” which they had, to their convenience, suddenly rediscovered. Was their response more humane, more civilized?
Claiming to show “thousands” of Iraqi soldiers being held as prisoners in southern Iraq, Western media outlets sprayed their front pages with gigantic images of the captives in the early weeks of the invasion, being marched with their hands on their heads.
Saddam Hussein’s two sons were photographed, dead, after they had fallen to American gunfire, and these images were published worldwide.
Saddam Hussein’s “spider hole” (terminology meant to add to the dehumanization) was photographed, as was his medical examination by American captors, like a wild animal caught by White big game hunters, as if undergoing delousing before being put on public display.
Saddam Hussein’s days in what was indisputably a Kangaroo Court, televised, also gave many pleasure, to see this man made to fight when the outcome had been predetermined, to allow him an appeal when his sentence was already made certain, and to watch his furor grow at the lynching that was inevitably in store for him; all of this would give some the same perverse joy that wicked children show in pulling the wings off of a fly or burning a caterpillar under a magnifying lens.
Saddam Hussein’s execution, on government television no less, with complete footage released by two government officials who were permitted to openly record the proceedings with their cell phones, to the accompaniment of sectarian insults, and distributed across the Internet.
And, I do not need to remind anyone of the countless Abu Ghraib photographs.
[I would like to refer readers to Susan Sontag‘s critique, “Regarding the Torture of Others,“ which appeared in The New York Times on May 23, 2004.]
Is all of this just an accident? Obviously not, it is done by design. So what is the design?
Whether it is Pirates of the Caribbean 2 or Apocalypto or the murder of Saddam Hussein, we are being treated to a ghoulish feast of images of the supposed barbarity of others, yet displaying our own in greater abundance. In an effort to stem the tide of photographs and videos which show the extreme vulnerability of coalition forces in Iraq (whether it is the famed series of “Juba the Sniper” videos showing an Iraqi sniper at work against US troops, filmed from the perspective of the barrel of his rifle, or the collage of roadside bomb clips where the trajectories of American bodies up through the tank and into the air is traced by an illuminated red circle added by a video editor–my, how the uncivilized learn the arts of civilization so quickly), clearly the “civilizers” have done no better than the “uncivilized.” That is also not an accident, not a stumbling into a situation of contradiction.
What I find most disturbing (as if all of this was not disturbing enough) is that these images are shown to us…as if we were expected to enjoy them. And that, I think, is the answer to what appears, superficially, to be a contradiction we enjoy (the civilized gawking at the uncivilized in what is after all a very uncivilized manner). When our political leadership and the media establishment treat us to these spectacles, they expect us to gaze at these pictures of conquest without seeing ourselves at work in the gazing. To put it bluntly, the one who takes pleasure at the sight of the conquest of the other avoids seeing himself as the demented, drooling savage he claims to abhor. These photos and films permit viewers to watch, themselves unseen, but even worse than that: barring them from seeing themselves in the act of looking. This is what the deliberate, studied, and regulated display of these images is meant to accomplish: our own colonization as we are emotionally and unconsciously recruited into celebrating the oppressor. The fact that this does not work nearly so well, so smoothly, in reality is something that gives one some hope.