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On Not Seeing What Appears in Photographs

Opening the pages of The New York Times these days, one is often greeted with pictures of chaotic, smoke-filled scenes of injury and death not only of soldiers but of ordinary Iraqi men, women, and children--the grisly work of car bombs and suicide bombers. The regularity with which these pictures have been appearing, however, has left me feeling surprisingly little, something I should have thought impossible after having lived in such close quarters with the acrid, black smoke of the bombed World Trade Towers and with the feeling of ruin that the smell of smoke called forth as it lingered in pockets between buildings months after the event. For a number of years now, I have written about the way repeated exposure to indecent, or obscene things, has the power to wear away one's sensitivity, and I had thought this awareness would keep my own sensibility alive to things that should rightly shock me. But now, as I open the Times, I find myself perfectly capable of glancing at these pictures of devastation one moment and the next reading the weather forecast in the right-hand corner directly above them. (This has not yet become the case with the pictures of the wreckage of the tsunami, which have, at least for the moment, displaced the pictures of the Iraqi injured and dead.)

The front page of the paper on Monday, December 20, however, displayed a color photograph of a scene that I simply could not take in at a single glance: a group of men, one lying on his side on the ground, his back towards the camera; another anxiously leaning over him; another caught in motion, apparently running towards him, his arms stretched downward; another standing behind them all, as if on look-out; and yet another man, his back towards the camera, on his knees, his head bowed--all this in front of on-coming traffic on a busy city street. To my eyes, it appeared that a man had been gravely wounded, his friends were rushing to his aid, and that one man was so distraught that he had fallen to his knees, perhaps in prayer. Then I read the caption:

     At left, a gunman in Baghdad yesterday shot
     and killed an election official who had been
     pulled from his car. Two other officials were
     also killed, including, moments later, the man kneeling.

Then it hit me that I was looking at the aftermath of an execution. I was overcome with horror that among the four living, breathing men I was seeing, two of them would soon be ambushed and murdered. And the sight was all the more awful, as the men were naturally oblivious to the fate that was upon them, while we who had read the caption were granted dreadful, inhuman powers of foresight.

It was only when I read through the article that I came to understand that the man kneeling--who I now noticed was wearing the same red and white scarf as the man who lay dead on the street--was in fact one of the election officials who was about to be killed and that the three men with him were not his comrades but his murderers. Looking more closely at the picture, I could see that the man caught in motion, who I had thought was running to help his fallen friend, was holding a gun in his outstretched left hand. I at last realized that I was looking at a shocking photo of murder in real time. What, I wondered, had the photographer been thinking when he snapped this picture? And what were the editors at the Times thinking when they decided to publish it?

The picture haunted me, especially since I had so completely misinterpreted it at first glance, but I tried not to dwell on it. And then, three days later, I came upon an editorial by Thomas Friedman in the Times about this very same picture, which he apparently had no trouble deciphering: "It showed several Iraqi gunmen, in broad daylight and without masks, murdering two Iraqi election workers." The only thing Friedman was uncertain about was whether "the gunman had either just pumped a bullet into [the man lying on the ground] or was about to." Friedman went on to report that he had previously seen the picture on the Internet and confessed, "I did something I've never done before--I blew it up so it covered my whole screen. I wanted to look at it more closely. You don't often get to see the face of pure evil." Perhaps because the actions taking place in the picture were so transparently clear to him, Friedman felt no hesitation in drawing a moral from it: the war in Iraq is about "people who want to hold a free and fair election to determine their own future, opposed by a virulent nihilistic minority that wants to prevent that."

I, on the other hand, had been occupied with other thoughts, feelings, and associations, not least those inspired by Simone Weil's stunning essay on war, "The Iliad or the Poem of Force." Once I grasped what the camera had actually recorded, the truth of her essay flooded in on me--that force, during battle, "turns man into a thing in the most literal sense: it makes a corpse out of him." This certainly was the fate of the poor man lying inert on the busy street in Baghdad, and the cold lens of the camera, it seemed to me, subjected him again to this terrible process of dehumanization. I should have averted my eyes, I thought. At the same time, I had been doing my best not to imagine what was going on in the poor soul who was made to kneel as he awaited his certain end, but my mind immediately filled with imaginings as I read Weil's description of the way force has "the ability to turn a human being into a thing while he is still alive." I quote her at length:

     A man stands disarmed and naked with a weapon pointing at
     him; this person becomes a corpse before anybody or anything
     touches him. Just a minute ago, he was thinking, acting,

Then she quotes from the Iliad:

     Motionless, he pondered. And the other drew near
     Terrified, anxious to touch his knees, hoping in his heart
     To escape evil death and black destiny ...

But then--

     Achilles, drawing his sharp sword, struck
     Through the neck and breast bone. The two-edged sword
     Sunk home its full length. The other, face down,
     Lay still, and the black blood ran out, wetting the ground.

From Homer's breathtaking descriptions of man's remorseless violence against other men and their constantly shifting fortunes during battle, Weil was able to penetrate deep into the nature of force: "Force is as pitiless to the man who possesses it, or thinks he does, as it is to its victims; the second it crushes, the first it intoxicates. The truth is nobody really possesses it." And this is because, in his intoxication, the wielder of force, just like those who are its victims, becomes dehumanized, "a thing." Over him, Weil noted, "words are as powerless as over matter itself." Because she was writing during the savage battles of the second World War, Weil was especially alert to the battle similes in the Iliad, which liken the warriors "either to fire, flood, wind, wild beasts, or God knows what blind cause of disaster, or else to frightened animals, trees, water, sand, to anything in nature that is set into motion by the violence of external forces." As I read Weil's heartbreaking meditations as she followed the Iliad to its tragic end, I couldn't help thinking of the man holding the gun in the picture and of his accomplices, too, now with my vision made more acute by Weil's example, and I saw that even though these men were wielding power at that moment, surely they, too, were destined to suffer a reversal of fortune, since violence, as Weil put it, "obliterates anybody who feels its touch."

I very much wanted to leave these black thoughts behind so I picked up a magazine to read. But just as I opened its pages, I found myself unexpectedly enveloped in the claustrophobic atmosphere of Andre Malraux's novel, Man's Fate, which tells the story of the ill-fated Shanghai insurrection of 1927. The idealism and courage as well as the alarming zeal that animated the men who became revolutionaries and suicide bombers took hold of my imagination at the same time that I remembered the many sadists who also peopled this world--those creatures of the night who had been brutalized by their foes and could only find release by inflicting the same suffering and humiliation on others. By now, I knew it was time to re-join everyday life so I decided to take a walk. But just as I opened the door and stepped into the light of the sun made blinding as it reflected off the newly fallen snow, I was suddenly visited by a vision forced from the war-ravaged imagination of Goya, Saturn Devouring One of His Children.

Rochelle Gurstein is the author of The Repeal of Reticence (Hill and Wang).

By Rochelle Gurstein