After four decades of brutal dictatorship, Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi was executed by rebel fighters who were the product of an uprising conceived at the beginning of this year. Now, with access to the Internet and the latest version of Adobe Flash plug-in, anyone can see more or less just how that assassination transpired.
In a viral cellphone video, originally shown by Qatar’s Al Jazeera network with nearly five million Youtube views and now posted on sites from Facebook to The New York Times, the ousted Libyan despot is seen being dragged and struck amidst a fervent crowd. As they shout “God is Great!” and fire their weapons into the air in celebration, they grab at his bloodied and matted hair whilst kicking his limp body. Other heavily-circulated images show stills of the video of Qaddafi being sodomized with a knife by a fighter at the 16-second mark.
And yet even more harrowing footage has been disseminated: Qaddafi’s bullet-wounded and half-naked body on display in a market freezer in the Libyan port city of Misurata. Videos taken inside the cooler show dozens of jubilant Libyans documenting his (apparently washed) corpse with their mobile phones.
But perhaps this degree of documentation is unsurprising. Perhaps it is a product of a generation that operates in a global digital age. Perhaps it is practically expected that such a pivotal event in this series of Arab revolts is so graphically recorded. It seems almost silly to be appalled at the instant ferrying of these very visceral videos and photographs.
Yet our consumption of these images raises a question that is rife with ethical evocations: should we have such unfettered access to visual records of war and trauma? Photographs of dismembered bodies, videos of massacre and execution and artistic renditions of combat are pervasive in a culture that thrives on immediacy and interactivity. But it is this insatiability that we should maybe be concerned with — the fact that we have become desensitized to images that should shock instead of fascinate.
And we don’t seek just any images, but images produced in the “anti-art” style. That is to say, photographs that don’t look artistic, videos that have the essence of authenticity (a shaky hand, a foggy lens, etc.). This inclination towards what seems to be born by chance, and not by craft, is due to our desire to feel ethically comfortable with gawking at images of misery. We’re uncomfortable with anything perfectly composed because it exposes our perverse impulse to gawk in the first place.
There is also issue with our hunt for what American literary theorist Susan Sontag articulates as, “more dramatic (as they’re often described) images, which drives the photographic enterprise, and is part of the normality of a culture in which shock has become a leading stimulus of consumption and source of value.” Sontag is right — headline news is riddled with stories of war and death in the Middle East that still manage to entertain a substantially large audience. And this idea of “entertainment” is an important one to grapple with. If Sontag is accurate in her assertions, then we seem to derive some sort of pleasure from observing that which is gruesome. We are, in a sense, entertained by images of revolutionaries violently taking back their country from an equally violent totalitarian.
Of course we should be aware of those traumatic events that occur beyond our borders. To do otherwise would be to narrow our breadth of knowledge and understanding about the world around us. But to fully immerse ourselves in every tweet, text, news feed, photo and video that comes our way is to numb all of our senses in the face of information that can’t ever be fully tweeted, texted, reported, photographed or videotaped — no matter how steady the hand is that holds the device.