This photograph of a protester being dragged by police in Athens, Greece appears to be a small study in mayhem. The action seems to be going in two different ways at once: two cops are facing right and one is moving left, with the civilian body being drawn as if to be quartered between them. There are signs of action everywhere–tear gas hissing from a canister on the left, a motorcycle ready to speed off on the right, and the four figures struggling across the frame–and yet the moment is paralyzed by the fact that everything is at odds with everything else.
The more you look at it, the less sense it makes. The uniformed police are supposed to be agents of state order, but their movements and lines of sight are vectoring off in different directions. The protester supposedly is a threat that has to be subdued by three armored men, but he is waring shorts and a t-shirt, as if a tourist, and his vulnerable, bared body is only capable of being hurt as it is dragged violently through the gas across the concrete. He is being auditioned for martyrdom, not revolution.
And why would he subject himself to this madness? He is protesting the Israeli government’s seizure of a humanitarian aid flotilla that was heading toward Gaza. Let’s get this straight: he is protesting against the Israeli government, in Athens. He is putting his body on the line against a government that is accustomed to withstanding international criticism, and he is doing it in the capital of a weak EU country, not in Israel or in the US, its most powerful and reliable ally. A rationale can be found, of course: protests against the violent seizure of the ships are occurring throughout the world and thereby activating a global public sphere, and Greece does provide the major Mediterranean port for US Navy, but I think there is more to it.
I don’t know about the specific individual, but I do know that similar scenes were photographed elsewhere in Athens and around the globe, and that they are part of a larger struggle over what can be known and admitted and acted on in the world today. To put it bluntly, dissent still requires that people get beaten up in public in order to force governments to confront their own stupidity, and to demand that the press confront their complicity with stupidity.
Let me give examples of what I mean by stupidity and complicity. The New York Times reported on Tuesday that at least one member of the inner circle of the Israeli government, “Einat Wilf . . . said that she had warned Mr. Barak and others well in advance that the flotilla was a public relations issue and should not be dealt with by military means. ‘This had nothing to do with security,’ she said in an interview. ‘The armament for Hamas were not coming from this flotilla.'” The more you know about the flotilla, the more obvious its plan to challenge the blockade and garner world press attention, but guess which opinion prevailed in Israel? (One thinks of BP executives mulling over the decision of whether to take an extra day or two to close the Deepwater Horizon oil well properly; Israel has not cornered the market on stupidity.)
But surely the Times is holding their feet to the fire, right? Perhaps, until one reads later in the article that “The blockade was imposed by Israel and Egypt after the Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007.” That “takeover” refers to the fighting between Hamas and the PLO that followed the elections in 2006, and the implication is that Hamas obtained power through some sort of coup d’etat. What it does not say is that the fighting broke out after the PLO, US, EU, and Israel refused to accept the outcome of the 2006 democratic election won by Hamas. So why would the Israeli government rely on a military response that lead directly into a public relations trap? Because it had a long history of using force–e.g., the blockade–knowing that press coverage would be negligible. (How many of you knew that Gaza had been blockaded by sea for several years?)
This time the story broke big, however, because this time there was video coverage to contest the print story. Although the conventional wisdom is that visual images sensationalize while print reportage remains the mainstay of responsible journalism, it often is the case that print is the preferred medium of both stupidity and complicity.
To counter the institutions of state-sponsored stupidity, there need to be photographs that enact the senselessness of the state. And to get those images, ordinary people still need to get beaten in public. We should be grateful that some are willing to do so. Surely, however, more needs to be done if we are to see sustainable resolutions of political conflict.
Photograph by Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP-Getty. Those who think I’m being too harsh or imprecise when speaking of stupidity should note that the concept is being used in the debate in the Israeli press regarding the commando raid, e.g, here and here.