This photograph stopped me in my tracks:
The power of an image depends on both composition and context. To explain the impact of this photograph, I need to say a few words about the moral dimension of contemporary public life.
Although some don’t like to admit it, democratic politics rightly includes a certain amount of ethical sloppiness. Instead of authoritarian enforcement of moral order, democracy encourages people to negotiate with others, overlook differences in lifestyle, and settle for agreement on outcomes rather than principles. But if the competition for votes and the enforcement of policies becomes completely separated from ethics, democracies can become corrupted.
Recent events in the news have made the this growing danger all too clear. Three items need to be connected. First, we now know that torture was not the work of rogue soldiers, but rather was discussed and approved at the highest levels of the administration. Nor was this done in a general manner, but rather through highly detailed accounts of specific methods of abuse in tandem with carefully planned strategies for institutional protection of the government. In other words, the case has been made for prosecution of the current administration as war criminals. Second, the New York Times discovered that the “independent” military analysts giving “objective” assessments on the television news channels have been dutifully relaying administration propaganda to promote the war, and doing so while also in the employ of defense industries profiting from the war. In short, an influential sector of the press has become the propaganda organ for a criminal administration. Third, there was the ABC presidential nomination debate, which seemingly was modeled on “American Idol” while avoiding all major questions of policy, save for when the questioner promoted further reduction in the capital gains tax. What should be a forum for deliberative argument became instead a lesson in how to use entertainment and ideology to avoid thinking about reality.
In this context, it will be very easy for people to lose their ethical bearings while cynicism triumphs. “All politicians are alike.” “There’s nothing we can do.” “At least we’re not fanatics.” Perhaps it was because of this background of ethical complacency or defeatism that I was shaken by the photograph above.
Let’s look at it more closely. A man is carrying an injured woman after a car bombing in Baqouba, a provincial capital northeast of Baghdad. (The bombing was part of yet another attack in the insurgency and civil war unleashed by the US invasion.) Behind the man, another woman is also being helped as she holds a cloth to her face. Behind her, a boy has been bloodied as well. The background also includes a police vehicle and personnel, and then a curb, fence, trees, and the rest of an orderly, pleasant scene like you might see in any suburban neighborhood in the US. But for the women’s garb and the beret on the soldier, they could be entering a suburban hospital. Thus, there is a declension of violence from most injured to uninjured, and, for many viewers, a declension of identification from least familiar in the foreground to most familiar in the background. Working against this tendency, the wounded are being brought into the viewer’s space, as if from a common background through a rupture created by war to further disrupt our world.
But the war is not materially disruptive for most Americans. It is easy to forget the harm being done. Until you look into his eyes. That look is what stops me from turning the page, changing the subject, and no longer caring. The rest of the scene is now a staple of world news; the victims are offered to us for our reactions, which may also become equally habitual and brief. No strong demand is made. By looking into the camera, the man activates the visual grammar of demand, but he is not demanding. This is not a call for vengeance or justice or mercy or help. It does beyond that. He stands there not as a victim but as a human being, and he asks for one thing–the most important thing–which is to look at what we have done. Facing a culture of willful blindness, he looks us in the eye and asks that we see.
The phrase that instantly came to mind was the question posed by attorney Joseph Welch to Senator Joseph McCarthy during the Army-McCarthy Hearings. Finally reaching the limit of his tolerance of the Senator’s abuse of the privileges of free speech and congressional power, Welch asked, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” To regain our moral center, the citizens of the US must do what the administration and too many members of the press have willfully refused to do: Ask the question this photograph is asking: How can you do this? Have you no sense of decency? No sense of shame?
Photograph by Adem Hadei/Associated Press.