Dr Uthman's Perspective

Some Thoughts on the Spectacle of Suffering – by Dr. Uthman Lateef

The image of Aylan Kurdi, of a forlorn three year old boy alone on a beach, flat down on his face as sea water lapped over and around him, appeared to wake the conscience of millions. We were confronted with ourselves, our weakness spoke through our tears and the isolation we saw in him drew us together in communal huddles. We felt. And in feeling we felt ourselves too, we felt for a moment what it meant to be human, to be small and weak, but our humanity extended beyond the exterior. We also looked within and humanity and empathy coalesced. By empathising we humanised our own existence since the boy we saw could have been one of ours, it could have been us in a metaphoric and symbolic sense lying face down, alone and ‘washed ashore’. This, in as much as we humanised Aylan, since we know that being empathetic is being human.

Although so many millions have been affected by the conflict in Syria, a crisis that has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands and seen over 4 million refugees and 11 million displaced, it was an image that struck a nerve, that spoke metonymically of a greater human suffering, and so our indifference, hardened by the years of this conflict was challenged. We stood in our mental landscape where Sa’eed ibn ‘Aamir stood as he watched the execution of Khubayb ibn ‘Adiy. Prone to fits and fainting so many years later he showed that ‘witnessing’ a human suffering can take its toll on a conscience. Though for Sa’eed ibn ‘Aamir it was his later embracing of Islam and loyalty to its truth that translated what was a torture and execution into a sadistic killing of a believer whose unswerving love for the Prophet (sallallahu alayhi wa sallam) impressed even his enemies, the witnessing of injustice moved him, and should move our consciences too.

Sontag (2003) noted however that photographs cannot be understood by one common ‘language’. Like other media, images of suffering require ‘acts of translation necessary to mobilize compassion instead of indifference, witnessing rather than consuming, and critical engagement rather than aesthetic appreciation or crude repudiation.’[1] There are no definitive denotations to photographs; instead each exists within a complex of shifting mediations. Lacquer (1989) identifies how humanitarian narratives of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries relied “on the personal body, not only as the focus of pain but also as the common bond between those who suffer and those who would help.”[2] The image of the suffering body has long been used by reform movements in shaping our perceptions of poverty and reporting violent conflicts. Liam Kennedy in his article on ‘Photography and Human Rights’ draws on the way photographers, since the early twentieth century, utilised photographs to challenge injustices and petition for change. Lewis Hine took over 200 photographs between 1904 and 1909 and it was through these photographs that he sought to reveal the devastating conditions of industrial and agricultural workers. A focal point in his photographs was the difficulties faced by child labourers among cotton mill children. The plight of children in disaster zones has long been a focus area to raise consciousness and petition for change. Photographs detailing the visual horrors of the Holocaust by Margaret Bourke-White at Buchenwald and George Rodger at Belsen came to represent a ‘bearing witness’ as a visual response to human rights violations and one that brought out the ethical function of the photographic image; the photograph came to represent an ethical imperative that ‘bears witness’ to the suffering and degradation of others. Empathic disconnect was and still is a major inhibition to compassionate outlooks in the face of suffering. The seminal analyses of Theodor Adorno and Henry Giroux following the events of the Holocaust and the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib are focused primarily on understanding how absence of empathy with the other is a major factor to abuse, violation of rights and murder of that other.

It is the irresponsible use today of the smartphone that must have a prominent place in this discourse. While ‘smartphones’ today have become commonplace in all continents, the ease of communication is coupled with the difficulty of ethical choices the use of the phone brings with it. Instantly, we are photographers and also witnesses, photographers and potential bystanders. In the catalogue of lynching of Black men and women in North America in the 19th and 20th centuries, what were initially discrete events, hidden from public view became in time, with the rise of cinematography and ‘image-making’, public and publicised events. The 1909 execution of Will Mack in Brandon, Mississippi was attended by up a crowd of more than 3000 people. They arrived on trains and buggies while vendors sold soda pop, ice cream, peanuts and watermelon. The sobriety of the occasion for Blacks was grotesquely juxtaposed with the collective indifference of attendees. Pre-lynching and post-lynching pictures of victims sought to create a twisted pictorial narrative – dread and fear was altogether fulfilled with humiliation in death. 6000 people attended the execution of Charles Johnston in Swainsboro, Georgia in 1893, an event which hosted shows as side attractions. Such lynchings and executions resembled modern theatrical entertainment, events of thrilling amusement.

In today’s age bullying and street violence find their immediate ways onto social media sites in which the hedonistic mindset of observers, guilty participants, who shout and cheer in gladiator-like settings is altogether ‘entertaining’. Countless bullying incidents are recorded on smartphones and uploaded within seconds. Since little effort is made to disclose the identities of perpetrators nor of bystanders the element of ‘entertainment’ is what is projected.

Only a few years ago Auschwitz survivor Stephane Hessel authored his final book, Time for Outrage, before he died at the age of 93. His book, which he intended to be a lasting testament for the next generation concludes with an impassioned plea to break free from the clutches of consumer driven lifestyles, consumerism which ‘offers nothing but mass consumption as a prospect for our youth, general amnesia and the outrageous competition of all against all.’ The ‘general amnesia’ of which he wrote is connected in our world saliently and seductively to spectatorship. If we fail to respond when we ‘witness’ then we become spectators seated in our global arena waiting for the next show of human misery. We forego what is inherently good and decent in ourselves in place of a moment of mental image-making. Housed in a zoo, Orta Benga was the spectacle par excellence for a population that relished in ‘seeing’ while he was predisposed to being ‘seen’. The throngs that gathered to catch a glimpse of the pigmy boy, human in every sense though no humanity was afforded him, are the same throngs that gather around a bullied schoolchild, their smartphones poised in the hands of a dumb people. Dumbed by a collective beseeching of entertainment in cruelty and dumbed by a wanton indifference. They not only witness but their photography calls on others to witness too, their works of art culturalise the video landscaping of cruelty as they come to star in their own movies.

The image of Aylan then became the symbol of a refugee crisis. Though thousands of others had drowned and though the influx of refugees long predated the death of Aylan the image nonetheless carried a symbolic code. It reflected simultaneously what could happen, what does happen and what shouldn’t happen, and so the moral fabric of our consciousness was tugged, searching for meaning. The power of images to reawaken, to ‘speak’ metonymically and to replace longstanding statistical analyses and hard facts has long existed. We need to know details but we also need to learn to infer meanings from what we see. In 1955 the killing of Emmett Till, a young African American boy on holiday from Chicago to Mississipi, changed the scope and outlook of the Civil Rights Movement.

Though countless blacks had been killed in the early decades of the twentieth century, lynched or beaten to death, the killing of Emmett became an icon of white racism and brutality, galvanising the support of both blacks and whites. When his mutilated body was discovered in the Tallahatchie River the police were eager that it remained sealed. Such a prospect was quickly rejected by his mother Maya Till who wanted to ‘see’ her son. Further, against police and state advice, she chose to have his funeral service in an open casket so others could also ‘see’. ‘This is what you did to my son. I want the world to see what you did.’ It was the sight of the disfigured Emmett lying in his coffin that brought home the truths of racism. Since that time there have been numerous examples illustrating the power of images. The picture of Kim Phuc running naked, her back skinned by American napalm or of Kevin Carter’s photograph of a Sudanese girl crouched down as a vulture sits beside her waiting for the girl to die in her exhaustion or of Aylan Kurdi lying flat on the beach, speak of an injustice that could happen, did happen but shouldn’t have happened. Our alarm can become outrage if we learn to keep the moral agency within us alive and not succumb to a state of amnesia and indifference, waiting for the next iconic image to briefly unsettle us. Let our moral compassion today become a moral consistency for our remaining days.

[1] Henry A. Giroux, ‘What Might Education Mean After Abu Ghraib: Revisiting Adorno’s Politics of Education’ –

[2] Thomas Laqueur, ‘Bodies, Details and the Humanitarian Narrative,’ in The New Cultural History, ed. Lynn Hunt, p. 177. (176-204.)2BEFBA7200000578-3220746-This_moving_artwork_depicts_Aylan_Kurdi_lying_dead_on_the_beach_-a-15_1441288665231

New piece by Chris Hedges – ‘The Terror We Give Is the Terror We Get’

The Terror We Give Is the Terror We Get

Posted on Feb 8, 2015

By Chris Hedges

We fire missiles from the sky that incinerate families huddled in their houses. They incinerate a pilot cowering in a cage. We torture hostages in our black sites and choke them to death by stuffing rags down their throats. They torture hostages in squalid hovels and behead them. We organize Shiite death squads to kill Sunnis. They organize Sunni death squads to kill Shiites. We produce high-budget films such as “American Sniper” to glorify our war crimes. They produce inspirational videos to glorify their twisted version of jihad.

The barbarism we condemn is the barbarism we commit. The line that separates us from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is technological, not moral. We are those we fight.

“From violence, only violence is born,” Primo Levi wrote, “following a pendular action that, as time goes by, rather than dying down, becomes more frenzied.”


The burning of the pilot, Jordanian Lt. Muath Al-Kaseasbeh, by ISIS militants after his F-16 crashed near Raqqa, Syria, was as gruesome as anything devised for the Roman amphitheater. And it was meant to be. Death is the primary spectacle of war. If ISIS had fighter jets, missiles, drones and heavy artillery to bomb American cities there would be no need to light a captured pilot on fire; ISIS would be able to burn human beings, as we do, from several thousand feet up. But since ISIS is limited in its capacity for war it must broadcast to the world a miniature version of what we do to people in the Middle East. The ISIS process is cruder. The result is the same.

Terror is choreographed. Remember“Shock and Awe”? Terror must be seen and felt to be effective. Terror demands gruesome images. Terror must instill a paralyzing fear. Terror requires the agony of families. It requires mutilated corpses. It requires anguished appeals from helpless hostages and prisoners. Terror is a message sent back and forth in the twisted dialogue of war. Terror creates a whirlwind of rage, horror, shame, pain, disgust, pity, frustration and impotence. It consumes civilians and combatants. It elevates violence as the highest virtue, justified in the name of noble ideals. It unleashes a carnival of death and plunges a society into blood-drenched madness.

During the Bosnian War of the 1990s, relatives paid enormous sums to retrieve the bodies of their sons or husbands being held by corpse traders on the opposing side. And they paid even more in attempts to secure the release of sons or husbands when they were alive. Such trades are as old as war itself. Human beings, whether in our black sites or in the hands of Islamic militants, are war’s collateral.

Not all hostages or prisoners evoke the same national outcry. Not all command the same price. And not all are slated for release. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which turned kidnapping and ransom negotiations into an efficient business and took hundreds of captives, held tiers of hostages. Celebrity hostages—including politicianIngrid Betancourt, who was captured while she was running for the presidency of Colombia and who was freed by the Colombian military after being held six years—were essentially priced out of the market. FARC also had middle-priced hostages such as police officers and soldiers and low-priced hostages who included peasants. Celebrity hostages are worth more to all sides of a conflict while they are in captivity. These celebrity hostages—onetime Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro, who was kidnapped and executed by the Red Brigades in 1978, is another example—heighten war’s drama. Saddam Hussein in a cage served this purpose. Celebrity hostages, because the price demanded for their release is so extravagant, are often condemned to death in advance. I suspect this was the case with the American journalist James Foley, who was beheaded in captivity. The proposed ransom was so wildly exorbitant—100 million euros and the release of Islamic radicals being held by the United States—that his captors probably never expected it to be paid.

The Jordanian government is struggling to contain a virulent, if small radical Islamic movement. There is unease among Jordan’s population, as there is unease in the United States about American air assaults on ISIS. The death of the Jordanian pilot, however, bolsters the claims by Washington and Amman that the battle with ISIS is a struggle between democratic, enlightened states (although Jordan is not a democracy) and savage jihadists. And Jordan’s hanging of two al-Qaida members Wednesday was calculated, along with Jordanian fighter jet strikes in Syria on the de facto capital of ISIS, to highlight these supposed differences and intensify the conflict.

Sajida al-Rishawi, one of the two who were hanged, had been on death row since 2005 for her role in the attacks on Amman hotels that left 60 people dead. She had been an associate of the Jordanian-born al-Qaida leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed in Iraq in 2006. The tit-for-tat executions by Jordan and ISIS, like the airstrikes, are useful in playing the game of terror versus terror. It fosters the binary vision of a battle between good and evil that is crucial to maintaining the fevered pitch of war. You do not want your enemy to appear human. You do not want to let your population tire of the bloodletting. You must always manufacture terror and fear.

France and most other European states, unlike the United States, negotiate with kidnappers and pay for hostages. This has devolved into an established business practice. The tens of millions of dollars raised by ISIS through kidnapping is a significant source of its revenue, amounting to perhaps as much as half of its operating budget. The New York Times, in an investigation, wrote in July 2014 that “Al Qaeda and its direct affiliates have taken in at least $125 million in revenue from kidnappings since 2008, of which $66 million was paid just last year.” But negotiating and paying ransoms has consequences. While French and other European citizens are more likely to be ransomed, they are also more likely to be taken hostage. But France is spared the scenes that Americans, who refuse to pay, must endure. And because of this France is able to remain relatively sane.

Terror serves the interests of the war mongers on both sides of the divide. This is what happened during the 444-day Iran hostage crisis that took place from 1979 to 1981. And this is why Jordan—unlike Japan, which saw two of its nationals executed but is not involved militarily against ISIS—has reacted with sanctimonious fury and carried out retaliation. It is why Foley’s murder strengthened the call by the war lobby in Washington to launch a bombing campaign against ISIS. Terror—the terror we commit and the terror done to us—feeds the lusts for war. It is a recruiting tool for war’s crusade. If ISIS were not brutal it would have to be made to seem brutal. It is the luck of the fanatics we oppose, and the fanatics in our midst, that everyone’s propaganda needs are amply met. The tragedy is that so many innocents suffer.

Mideast governments allied with the West, including Jordan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, have watched in horror as ISIS has carved out of parts of Syria and Iraq to create a self-declared caliphate the size of Texas. ISIS has managed through oil exports and the business of hostage taking to become financially self-sufficient. The area under its control has become a mecca for jihadists. It has attracted an estimated 12,000 foreign fighters, including 2,000 from Europe.

The longer the rogue caliphate remains in existence the more it becomes a mortal threat to the West’s allies in the region. ISIS will not invade countries such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan, but its continued existence empowers the discontented and the radicals in those countries, many groaning under collapsing economies, to stoke internal upheavals. The United States and its allies in the region are determined to erase ISIS from the map. It is too destabilizing. Dramas like these, because they serve the aims of ISIS as well as those of the nations seeking to destroy ISIS, will be played out as long as the caliphate exists.

Terror is the engine of war. And terror is what all sides in this conflict produce in overabundance.

Malcolm X Was Right About America

Posted on Feb 1, 2015

By Chris Hedges

  Malcolm X about two weeks before he was murdered in 1965. AP/Victor Boynton

NEW YORK—Malcolm X, unlike Martin Luther King Jr., did not believe America had a conscience. For him there was no great tension between the lofty ideals of the nation—which he said were a sham—and the failure to deliver justice to blacks. He, perhaps better than King, understood the inner workings of empire. He had no hope that those who managed empire would ever get in touch with their better selves to build a country free of exploitation and injustice. He argued that from the arrival of the first slave ship to the appearance of our vast archipelago of prisons and our squalid, urban internal colonies where the poor are trapped and abused, the American empire was unrelentingly hostile to those Frantz Fanon called “the wretched of the earth.” This, Malcolm knew, would not change until the empire was destroyed.

“It is impossible for capitalism to survive, primarily because the system of capitalism needs some blood to suck,” Malcolm said. “Capitalism used to be like an eagle, but now it’s more like a vulture. It used to be strong enough to go and suck anybody’s blood whether they were strong or not. But now it has become more cowardly, like the vulture, and it can only suck the blood of the helpless. As the nations of the world free themselves, then capitalism has less victims, less to suck, and it becomes weaker and weaker. It’s only a matter of time in my opinion before it will collapse completely.”

King was able to achieve a legal victory through the civil rights movement, portrayed in the new film “Selma.” But he failed to bring about economic justice and thwart the rapacious appetite of the war machine that he was acutely aware was responsible for empire’s abuse of the oppressed at home and abroad. And 50 years after Malcolm X wasassassinated in the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem by hit men from the Nation of Islam, it is clear that he, not King, was right. We are the nation Malcolm knew us to be. Human beings can be redeemed. Empires cannot. Our refusal to face the truth about empire, our refusal to defy the multitudinous crimes and atrocities of empire, has brought about the nightmare Malcolm predicted. And as the Digital Age and our post-literate society implant a terrifying historical amnesia, these crimes are erased as swiftly as they are committed.

“Sometimes, I have dared to dream … that one day, history may even say that my voice—which disturbed the white man’s smugness, and his arrogance, and his complacency—that my voice helped to save America from a grave, possibly even fatal catastrophe,” Malcolm wrote.The integration of elites of color, including Barack Obama, into the upper echelons of institutional and political structures has done nothing to blunt the predatory nature of empire. Identity and gender politics—we are about to be sold a woman president in the form of Hillary Clinton—have fostered, as Malcolm understood, fraud and theft by Wall Street, the evisceration of our civil liberties, the misery of an underclass in which half of all public school children live in poverty, the expansion of our imperial wars and the deep and perhaps fatal exploitation of the ecosystem. And until we heed Malcolm X, until we grapple with the truth about the self-destruction that lies at the heart of empire, the victims, at home and abroad, will mount. Malcolm, like James Baldwin, understood that only by facing the truth about who we are as members of an imperial power can people of color, along with whites, be liberated. This truth is bitter and painful. It requires an acknowledgment of our capacity for evil, injustice and exploitation, and it demands repentance. But we cling like giddy children to the lies we tell ourselves about ourselves. We refuse to grow up. And because of these lies, perpetrated across the cultural and political spectrum, liberation has not taken place. Empire devours us all.

“We’re anti-evil, anti-oppression, anti-lynching,” Malcolm said. “You can’t be anti- those things unless you’re also anti- the oppressor and the lyncher. You can’t be anti-slavery and pro-slavemaster; you can’t be anti-crime and pro-criminal. In fact, Mr. Muhammadteaches that if the present generation of whites would study their own race in the light of true history, they would be anti-white themselves.”

Malcolm once said that, had he been a middle-class black who was encouraged to go to law school, rather than a poor child in a detention home who dropped out of school at 15, “I would today probably be among some city’s professional black bourgeoisie, sipping cocktails and palming myself off as a community spokesman for and leader of the suffering black masses, while my primary concern would be to grab a few more crumbs from the groaning board of the two-faced whites with whom they’re begging to ‘integrate.’ ”

‘Clean War’

‘Clean War’

by Patricia Wellingham-Jones

A commentary by Dr. Uthman Lateef

Tell that to the ravens

plucking out eyes

on the blood-packed sand

To fathers cradling

the last of their hopes

in torn bodies

To young girls swelling

with the unwanted gifts

of swift strong soldiers

To mothers and wives

pulling on veils of grief

as they wash their dead

Inform the children

who wander dazed with thirst, alone

among ruins


The representation of the war in Iraq was reduced to the level of a video game, largely due to a combination of rigid media management by the military, the fact that much of the action was waged from the air, and importantly due to a collective desensitisation of the human suffering. The world witnesses ‘clean’ images from ‘smart’ weapons, ‘surgical strikes’, ‘collateral damage’ and ‘soft’ targets. As Petley has explained, these euphemisms serve to complement the emptying of language of any connotations of human suffering. (1) In Wellingham-Jones’ poem, Clean War, it is precisely the idea that a euphemism from the modern war vocabulary hides the death, carnage, rape and grief that war leaves behind. Chris Hedges commented that “we all speak with the same clichés and euphemisms…We accept, if not condone, the maiming and killing of others as the regrettable cost of war. We operate under a new moral code.” (2) War is “prosecuted by means of “surges”, “operations”, and “tactical strikes” – terms that imply the life-saving activities of doctors rather than the life-discarding ones of warriors,” (3)

Wellingham-Jones’ reference to ‘ravens plucking out eyes’ is similar to the imagery in ‘Vultures’ by Chinua Achebe, the acclaimed Nigerian poet, where vultures ‘picked the eyes of a swollen corpse’. In the latter’s poem it is the way in which human beings, specifically the Nazi Commandent at Belsen Camp can both gas human beings to their death as well as show acts of kindness to others. We have the same contrast in the media image and military euphemism of a ‘clean war’. The second stanza is a particularly moving one, ‘To fathers cradling the last of their hopes in torn bodies’. It is the narratives of these ‘fathers’ that go largely unreported, like the husband of Huda Jabbar Mohammed Ali, a forty-year old innocent Iraqi killed by American forces. Huda now takes care of her five children on her own. Or maybe the case reported by Geoffrey Millard, a former sergeant of the 42nd Infantry Division deployed in Iraq from October 2004-October 2005 who wrote how a young machine gunner killed an innocent mother, father and two children. The boy was aged four and the girl was age three. (4) Or maybe the dozens of cases of Israeli state terrorism that Ramzy Baroud highlights in ‘Searching Jenin’. In each example we learn of a life, a human being who had dreams, hopes, happiness, grief like the rest of us. We learn how each had siblings, a mother, father, relatives, neighbours, and friends and how the death of each victim has affected them all. (5)

Perhaps the poet’s use of sibilance in the third stanza is purposed to stress upon the silent savaging of innocence, hushed away by a military that prides itself on decency and ethical standards or reluctantly disclosed by victims due to fear of communal shame and dishonour. Not only have reports by Amy Maki and Lucinda Marshall highlighted the cases of rape in the U.S. military, as well as the research conducted by Dr. Mic Hunter in ‘Honor Betrayed: Sexual Abuse in America’s Military’, but there are also countless cases of U.S forces having raped and sexually assaulted natives in the countries that they occupied. According to Toshiyuki Tanaka 76 cases of rape or rape-murder were reported during the first five years of the American occupation of Okinawa in 1945. (6) Schrijvers writes that “many women” were brutally violated with “not even the least mercy.” (7) Who could forget the Mahmudiyah killings which saw the gang-rape and killing of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl by United States Army soldiers on March 12, 2006, and the murder of her family. Abeer Qasim Hamza, 14, was raped and murdered, after her family consisting of her mother, Fakhriyah Taha Muhsin, 34; father, Qasim Hamza Raheem, 45; and six-year-old sister Hadeel Qasim Hamza, were killed.

In the fourth stanza we have a sense of Antigone’s struggle; there will be no public act of grieving said Creon. It is women who are left to privately mourn the loss of their menfolk. For these ‘mothers and wives’ washing their dead there are no funeral services that take care of such arrangements. As Nguyen Quang Thieu brings to light in ‘On the Highway’, a poem that draws on the devastation caused by the war in Vietnam on ordinary Vietnamese women: “They walk like defeated soldiers, in silence…Like clouds floating heavy before a storm, The women walk in a line on the side of the highway. Where do they come from and where will they go…” Mothers and wives are left to carry the grief and burden left by the killing of men in war. The dangers of war for women go far beyond the violence of combat. Furthermore, the injuries inflicted on women are usually a rationale for continued conflict and resistance; in 1894 a Swedish missionary recorded a despairing Congolese song, part of which reads: ‘We are tired of living under this tyranny. We cannot endure that our women and children are taken away…’ (8) For women the threat of violence remains long after the fighting ends; washing their dead is usually only the beginning of their woes.

Finally, the children who have lost their fathers and brothers know that their war has not ended. Displaced, vulnerable to violence and abuse and separated from their families, malnourished and exposed to disease, children run the risk of being trafficked or illegally adopted. They ‘wander dazed with thirst, alone among ruins’. The media projection of human suffering in the lives of children in the East however is not the same as those in the West. Butler asks, ‘If 200,000 Iraqi children were killed during the Gulf War and its aftermath, do we have an image, a frame for any of those lives, singly or collectively? Is there a story we might find about those deaths in the media? Are there names attached to those children.” (9)

1. Petley, ‘War Without Death: Responses to Distant Suffering’, Journal for Crime, Conflict and the Media 1, p. 72.

2. Chris Hedges, War is a Force that Gives us Meaning (New York, 2003), pp. 34-3.

3. A Point of View: Why euphemism is integral to modern warfare

4. Iraq Veterans Against the War and Aaron Glantz, Winter Soldiers: Iraq and Afghanistan, Eyewitness Accounts of the Occupations (Chigago, IL, 2008), 96-7; 106-107.

5. Baroud, Searching Jenin: Eyewitness Accounts of the Israeli Invasion (Seattle, WA, 2002).

6. Y. Tanaka and T. Tanaka, Japan’s Comfort Women: Sexual Slavery and Prostitution During World War II.   

7. P. Schrijvers, The GI war against Japan: American soldiers in Asia and the Pacific during World War II (New York, 2002), p. 212.  

8. Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost, p. 172

9. J. Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London, 2004), p. 34

The War Photographer

‘The War Photographer’

by Carol Anne Duffy

A commentary by Dr. Uthman Lateef

…Something is happening. A stranger’s features
faintly start to twist before his eyes,
a half-formed ghost. He remembers the cries
of this man’s wife, how he sought approval
without words to do what someone must
and how the blood stained into foreign dust.

A hundred agonies in black-and-white
from which his editor will pick out five or six
for Sunday’s supplement. The reader’s eyeballs prick
with tears between bath and pre-lunch beers.
From aeroplane he stares impassively at where
he earns a living and they do not care.

The above excerpt from Carol Anne Duffy’s poem, The War Photographer begins at the third stanza. Though it is the death of a soldier that the photographer recollects, the words speak of a more general reality, one that relates to the ‘image’ of every innocent victim of violence. The photographer is confronted by two memories, the first being his own recollection of the ‘stranger’s features…a half-formed ghost.’ Since he is only a ‘stranger’, it is what Judith Butler in Precarious Life calls ‘foreclosing our apprehension of the human in the scene’, and in the case of the world’s ‘unworthy victims’ then Butler reminds us that ‘there never was a human, there never was a life, and no murder has, therefore, ever taken place.’(1) Virginia Woolf in Three Guineas suggests that exposure to images of human suffering can perhaps transcend gender boundaries, that there is something intrinsically awful about what ‘we’ have ‘produced’. Though Woolf asserts that such images ‘are not an argument; they are simply a crude statement of fact addressed to the eye’, she deliberates on whether males and females respond equally to those ‘statements’ of fact, ‘Whether when we look at the same photographs we feel the same things.’ Essentially, she ascertains that we should since ‘we are looking at the same picture; we are seeing with you the same dead bodies, the same ruined houses.’ (2)  But in our world there are those in far corners of the world who do not speak our languages or share our worldviews. They are ‘unworthy’ and there is no death if victims are ‘unworthy’ – faceless or formless and whose suffering is mostly quantified and whose lives are rarely humanised. The poet’s line, ‘how the blood stained into foreign dust’ seems to speak again of a memory that cannot be erased, the fact that the blood from his wound has seeped into the earth symbolises a permanence of war, just like blood is stained then so too are collective memories ‘stained’ by the exploits of injustice.

The final stanza leaves us with some grim truths. From the countless photos that have been taken, ‘a hundred agonies in black and white’, the photographer knows that the images of decimated life will be reduced to a mundane, random selection by an editor to print in a ‘Sunday’s supplement’. It is in the selection of such photographs, their framing and the narratives (or the lack thereof) that accompany them that dictate our emotive responses. Butler notes for example how ‘The photos of children maimed and killed by US bombs were…supplanted with footage that always took the aerial view, an aerial view whose perspective is established and maintained by state power.’(3) The poet reminds us that any sympathy with the victims is momentary, only tears ‘between baths and pre-lunch beers’. People have adopted more of a fascination than a disgust with the horrors that they encounter. In John Dean’s account of the tragic and infamous killing of Sylvia Likens in 1964 he notes how ‘the city’s curious, many of them from the several thousand workers in the City-County Building, had come to get a glimpse of the sadistic Likens murderers.’ An attorney in the crowd remarked, ‘If some of these people had been this concerned about Sylvia earlier, she probably would be alive today.’(4) Stanley Cohen highlights a similar observation in ‘States of Denial’ when commenting on the Israeli killing of Abd al-Samad Harizat  on 22 April 1995, a Palestinian who collapsed after fifteen hours of violent interrogation, ‘literally shaken to death – yanked up and down by his shirt collar. A practice designated as perfectly okay in the Israeli High Court. Cohen writes, ‘I overheard two fellow bus passengers casually arguing about what the lawyers actually meant by tilltulium, the Hebrew word for ‘shaking.’’ Cohen, in his assessment of images of suffering highlights how ‘the political problem is the media’s framework of reporting, rather than the public’s capacity to keep absorbing.’ It is therefore less about compassion fatigue and more about media fatigue: ‘The media has deemed ‘ordinary revelations as no longer newsworthy, and had decided that only extraordinary exposures would attract public attention.’(5)

By the end of the poem the photographer, high up in altitude ‘stares impassively’. He too has succumbed to the general state of apathy; ‘they do not care’ so neither should he. Perhaps the poet here is alluding to the way that distance equates to a qualitative distinction in death. An RAF aircrew member who flew over Hamburg on July 28, 1943 during the fire raids that killed 70,000 people, said: ‘I saw no streets, no outlines of buildings, only brighter fires which flared like yellow torches against a background of bright red ash. Above the city was a misty red haze. I looked down, fascinated but aghast, satisfied yet horrified.’(6)

Dr. Uthman Lateef

[1] J. Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London, 2006), p. 147.

2 Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas London (1991) pp. 13-14

3 J. Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London, 2006), p. 149.

4 John Dean, House of Evil: The Indiana Torture Slaying, p. 90.

5 Stanley Cohen, States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering, p. 193.

6 Dave Grossman, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, p. 101.

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