The cafe I frequent is attached to the building where I work. It was a sunny day. On the patio above the street some mothers had gathered with their children. They’d pushed multiple tables together, marking out the territory of their post-playgroup debrief. They picked at colourful salads and frittatas, sipping mineral water and vegetable juices from wine glasses, one with a beetroot stain along her top lip.
On the wall behind the three Greek sisters who ran the cafe, with the help of their harried-looking Filipino minion, was a large flat-screen TV. The sound was permanently muted and CNN was showing endlessly looped images of the moments before Gaddafi’s death. It was the story of the day. A US predator drone, operated by remote control from a base near Las Vegas, had fired the first missiles at his convoy. Now, there he was on the muted TV, on the back of a truck, a bewildered old man, getting stabbed. Blood stained half his face as he was pressed between hundreds of revolutionaries who couldn’t believe their luck. They led him away; clearly he was disoriented, weak and confused. Then he was on the ground, being kicked. It was difficult to watch, yet riveting.
Beside me a small boy, a bit old to be wearing a superman outfit, was upending a container of packeted sugars. Another boy looked on, pointing out the naughty boy to his mother who was laughing at the cute antics. My co-workers were all staring at the hams, salamis and cut tomatoes; an unusual amount of red, fleshy food. Surely I wasn’t the only person thinking it weird that a 67-year-old man, covered in HD blood, was being repeatedly killed in a loop of death while I decided just how peckish I was? They were the actual last moments of his existence, as terror and fear coalesced into death to an absurd soundtrack of Beyoncé. Was this even legal – screening a death in public? Apparently, yes. While they ‘must display sensitivity in broadcasting images’, Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) regulations make no distinction between public and private screening of news footage. What seemed even stranger was that no one really seemed to notice.
One of the boys glanced up every now and then. What might he say to his therapist in twenty years?
‘When I looked at those photographs, something broke. Some limit had been reached, and not only that of horror; I felt irrevocably grieved, wounded, but a part of my feelings started to tighten; something went dead; something is still crying.’
That’s Susan Sontag writing about the first time that she, as a child, saw images of the Dachau concentration camp.
What if I was to run a home video in here of my small son playing naked on the beach, his pink willy jiggling as he skipped across the white foam? How long might it take until a collective discomfort permeated the room? Someone might contemplate whether they should notify the police. Perhaps I’d be reprimanded by my employer for being inappropriate near the workplace? I might be banned from the cafe or run over by prams wielded by a mob of mums releasing the kind of pent-up aggression I’d never taken the time to understand. I’d never put myself in their shoes, or tried to empathise. I’d been happy to group-profile them all as a faceless, selfish horde only writing to their MPs when restaurants didn’t provide a wide enough entry for their dual carriage prams. What did I really know about the dark and shameful thoughts that came with motherhood?
‘Can you believe they just keep looping this?’ I said to Darryl from archives. ‘There are kids here!’
‘Avoid anything that comes with tomato sauce,’ he laughed, and went back to texting.
Of course, Gaddafi may have green-lighted the bombing of the Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, killing 270 people. He may have financed the IRA and African guerrilla groups, bombed his own towns and a nightclub in Berlin, televised the execution of his critics, raped members of his elite female guard, passing them onto his sons and henchmen when he was bored, and perpetrated incalculable terrors upon his traumatised population. Although I was aware of all this and may even have had a few adult thoughts like well, that’s karma or I wish they hadn’t found him so soon and strung us along a bit more with the drama of the search, like they did with Osama – what did the kid in the superman outfit see? An old man with dark hair and olive skin, covered in blood, getting kicked to death by men of a similar hue? It was a hell realm of anarchy and barbarism.
While it still seems taboo to share images of our dead – a point one journalist made after September 11 was that there were no images of bloodied American corpses and with Bali, the only dead I saw on TV were wrapped in white sheets – what does the continuous black stream of death images flowing out of the Middle East teach somebody about that place and its inhabitants? They seem to be getting blown up or disfigured all the time. Oh, another twenty-three killed in a suicide blast, bodies piled on the backs of pickups, black-sheeted mums wailing beside them. Women covered from head to toe in black; something medieval that had slipped through a rift in time. We’re used to seeing them die. It’s normal for them. They’re not like us. They’re used to it. Plus, with their weird gun-ownership laws, they’re clearly insane. It would be much more tragic if it happened here. They’ve grown up with balaclava-clad goons in green headbands longing for death, shooting their assault rifles into the air; emissaries of the last days guarding the gates of the last place – except maybe for Africa – that anyone would ever want to visit. We all know this. We’ve seen it for as long as we can remember. There’s a generation that’s never known anything different. The Middle East is hell. From hell come demons. Who’d ever want to go there?
But what does it mean to not see dead white bodies from home-grown horrors? Does it mean their lives and deaths are somehow different? Different or not, we are much more at ease with seeing them die. These images, constantly repeated, makes it seem as if their lives are less valuable, to the point whereby a little boy can watch some old Arab bloke virtually kicked to death in a café and no-one even register that there is anything strange about it. Is it too cynical to suggest that ideas and beliefs about the individual value placed on human life are being constructed, or destructed, live? When I closed my eyes to the CNN racket I felt an electric residue of news events, as if I was standing beside a bank of screens, a kaleidoscopic stream of bits and bytes, zeroes and ones, a slow-moving glacier of coded terror. Jacked into this furnace it was easy to imagine some of them on pirate ships in this stream, chugging towards us on the northern seas, hordes of Arabs in hoods who wanted to invade and incinerate us, to rape our women and chop off our hands. There were no humans on those ghost ships, only demons.
If he was being stabbed and kicked by a mob in front of the Coke fridge the horror would be palpable – but because it’s reassembled as pixelated bits of code there is something less real about what’s occurring. There is something less real, or unreal, about bodies on television, and foreign bodies on television are even less real than Caucasian bodies, which reflect more viscerally our cultural identity. A taboo against televising the images of the dead from our own tribe keeps those images out of our mental archive. Hence, when we are confronted with close-to-home death images they are far more shocking, precisely because we haven’t been systematically desensitised to them.
When I’m bored at my desk I watch militainment videos from Iraq and Afghanistan with titles such as ‘UAV Predator Takes Out IED Emplacement Team With Hellfire Missiles’: endless clips of drone footage, of monitoring and surveying before blowing people up and finishing them off with machine gunfire. The medium entirely dehumanises the figures on the ground – it’s hard to relate to these evil spectres as human beings. Perhaps they had a brother or child killed in an airstrike and feel they’re betraying the dead by not retaliating? Who knows? Who cares? All we know is that they’re a five o’clock shadow away from the destruction of the free world. They decapitate and kill aid workers. They burn people alive. Slice off women’s faces. Neutering them from above is akin to pest control and much more humane than they deserve. It becomes very apparent how the medium negates our ability to empathise when videos have been tagged with comments like, ‘Fuck Yeah!’ or ‘Good Kill’. The medium has transformed real bodies into virtual bodies and if we cannot find empathy with virtual bodies it becomes much easier to be comfortable with the idea of deleting them from our screens. It’s already difficult to comprehend that those pixelated blobs of light that explode while we eat dinner are flesh and blood in time and space.
At the end of the nineteenth century, James Frazer’s epic study of religion and magic The Golden Bough revealed that it was not only in Australia but across the globe that Indigenous peoples have long-standing taboos against naming the dead. More recently those taboos have extended to images of the dead. Apart from an unwillingness to revive sorrows, speaking or whispering the name of the deceased risks disturbing or annoying the ghostly form, which may come back to trouble them. In all cases, Frazer concludes, the avoidance comes from a fear of the ghost. A contemporary of Frazer’s, Wilhelm Wundt, a founding figure of modern psychology, remarks that those living are afraid of ‘the dead man’s soul which has become a demon’, and thinks the essence of this taboo is a fear of demons. In Totem and Taboo, Freud takes this fear of the dead a step further by saying that the dead are treated like enemies in case they bring their contagion back to us.
While we may fear disturbing the eternal slumber of our kin, the opposite seems true of our enemies. We defile their dead bodies, in public. We hope that even in death they have no peace. We are unafraid of their corpses and taunt them with our lack of fear. Gaddafi’s body would be on show for days in a commercial freezer in a shopping centre, as if he was not only dead but his spirit had been sublimated. Libyans lined up with mobile phones to capture trophy videos that would be streamed across the world so that collectively we could take pleasure in seeing with our own eyes, just like we had with Saddam, that one more of hell’s overloads had been dispatched. But dispatched from where? What I saw in the cafe was not Gaddafi. Like Duchamp’s pipe, the banner scrolling underneath could have read, ‘This is not Gaddafi’, because it wasn’t. It was a choreography of data reconstituted into points of flashing light. It came to us from the virtual realm, an abstracted, disembodied dimension, where, through an archetypal Game of Thrones battle, Gaddafi had been expelled. Perhaps for the little boy beside me, already buying into the myth of Superman, this latest manifestation of good versus evil might, in the end, have a civilising force within his own nature – but not if that evil is seen to reside only in other nationalities.
I was well put off the idea of food. Should I complain? Would the guys behind the counter just roll their eyes? Who cares, they might say, we’ve got a business to run here, in the real world. I already knew I wouldn’t say anything. Logically, to make a fuss seemed outrageous; I mean, it was on television, it was hardly their fault, yet my feelings about it were confused, smothered, as if beneath a warm pillow of anaesthetic from which I could sense something was very off, but like trying to remember a dream, I couldn’t quite grasp what it was well enough to articulate it. I still can’t.