|Illustration By Peter Bennett|
Last Saturday’s New York Times ran a terrific story about an Amazonian quarup, a posthumous ceremony of lamentation, held by Indian shamans and warriors who had recently traveled for days to reach the tiny village of Yawalapiti. They had come to honor the passing of Orlando Villas Boas, an explorer and ethnologist who had spent decades documenting and defending Brazil’s indigenous peoples. For the Yawalapiti, Boas’ life, like all life, was touched by the sacred, so they danced, sang, chanted and reminisced to help guide his spirit to “the village in the stars.”
Such reverence for the dead feels eons away from our own disenchanted culture, which, viewing death as a systemic glitch that it’s best not to think about, treats the dead as meat to be served up however one sees fit. The hit show CSI flaunts CGI re-enactments that let us ride along with a bullet as it punctures a murder victim’s organs. Bad Boys II uses corpses as props in a car chase — we’re supposed to groan delightedly as a head goes rolling down the street — and has its heroes rummage a mortuary, prompting Martin Lawrence’s mirthless complaint, “I smell dead people.” (What you actually smell, Martin, is the script. Good job, Ron Shelton and Jerry Stahl.) And then there’s the vexed case of Uday and Qusay Hussein, images of whose bullet-riddled corpses were broadcast all over the world last week, prompting the usual tedious, multimedia hand wringing about how much maimed flesh it’s proper to show.
Now, the first thing to be said is that these photos were no Kodak Moments. The initial pictures of the brothers’ bearded, bloodied, slightly misshapen heads were nasty, yet they were actually less creepy than the shots taken after they’d been cleaned up and “dressed” by crack morticians. If you’ve been to the tomb of Mao, Lenin or Ho Chi Minh, where these fabled communist leaders lie embalmed, you’d recognize the queasy formaldehyde sheen of Uday’s and Qusay’s skin. Lying there on the slab, they looked like the world’s ghastliest wax fruit.
Of course, showing grisly images of real-life death is hardly new. The fabled pulp photographer Weegee built his career on grabbing such pix, blood pooling on the concrete around the mobster’s fallen body, and such imagery wasn’t only found in tabloids. While my parents can remember Robert Capa’s acclaimed (some say staged) photo of a Republican soldier being shot during the Spanish Civil War — capturing the very instant of death for the readers of Life — I was raised on the Zapruder film, Jack Ruby’s murder of Lee Harvey Oswald, and the notorious footage of a South Vietnamese officer putting a bullet through a suspect’s head; for years during that “living-room war,” one saw the dead or dying on TV almost every night.
But too much bloody reality makes a bad advertising environment. This spring, the mainstream media, especially the networks, were rightly criticized for sanitizing the Iraq war’s killing to make it more palatable to American audiences. Where were the dead people? On TV in the Middle East, that’s where — folks there are accustomed to seeing such stuff. Each time Iraqi TV or Al-Jazeera showed a dead or wounded American soldier, the U.S. government lectured them about human rights and the Geneva Convention. Small wonder then that Donald Rumsfeld’s decision to release the photos of Uday and Qusay should lead much of the Arab and European press to cry, “Hypocrisy.”
And quite rightly. Still, there’s plenty of bad faith to go around. After all, a key weapon of warfare is propaganda, which nearly always includes exploiting pictures of the victims. When Iraqi TV broadcast footage of dead Iraqi civilians or U.S. soldiers, it was hoping to portray coalition forces as barbarians while reminding its citizens that Yanks and Brits can be killed, too. Similarly, when the U.S. military released the images of the dead Uday and Qusay, it was scoring political points — offering Americans graphic proof that the invasion wasn’t a disaster (you see, we’re winning!), and more important, trying to convince the Iraqis that Hussein’s regime is ding-dong, Wicked Witch dead. Although I opposed the war and suspect the Bush administration is bungling the peace, this latter goal strikes me as perfectly reasonable.
I say this because I traveled around Romania in early 1990, shortly after its long-abused citizens finally toppled dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, put him and his wife, Elena, before a firing squad on December 25 (Merry Christmas . . .), and then gleefully broadcast tape of the execution (. . . and a happy New Year). Although such rough justice was chilling, I didn’t meet a soul there who didn’t applaud it. Seeing Ceausescu’s lifeless form allowed the cowed Romanians to breathe a bit more freely — the murdering bastard wasn’t coming back — and the same logic will almost certainly hold true in Iraq. Its citizens will soon realize they have nothing more to fear from Uday or Qusay.
Such reasoning was assailed by some on the left who objected to making the images public. British journalist Robert Fisk claimed that such “macabre theatre” made the U.S. resemble Saddam’s Baathist regime; the World Socialist Web railed against “the primitive and savage mentality of Bush, Rumsfeld and company. These are people to whom placing the head of an enemy on a pike on the gates of a city is not an unthinkable act.” Aw, c’mon. It’s typical of the left’s current self-defeating myopia that these fire-breathers should become outraged at merely seeing gruesome photos of leaders who actually did the things they accuse Bush and Rumsfeld of dreaming about. The Hussein family has publicly beheaded prostitutes, hanged “Zionist plotters” in Baghdad’s mockingly named Liberation Square and ordered summary executions by the thousands; the splendid Uday not only committed rape, but if his victims dared complain, he sent their families a box containing their chopped-up bodies. While broadcasting pictures of their corpses brings no honor or splendor to our national life — this is morally coarse behavior — I don’t exactly picture Uday and Qusay Hussein as human-rights victims.
When I first saw their corpses, I instantly thought of another image of politicized death — the famous last photo of Che Guevara’s body, surrounded by his captors, after his execution in Vallegrande, Bolivia, on October 9, 1967. The memory seemed especially apt as July 26 marked the 50th anniversary of Fidel Castro’s failed assault on the Moncado barracks in Santiago de Cuba, an uprising that landed him a 15-year jail term. He was given amnesty 21 months later (talk about your boo-boos), and with Guevara’s help, toppled strongman Fulgencio Batista and set about turning into a tyrant himself. He spent the next 40-odd years thinking about tractors, health care and staying in power, a task at which he proved so dauntingly efficient that today his most avid admirers are his amigo Gabriel García Márquez and such Hollywood caudillos as Steven Spielberg and Oliver Stone, surely the last people on the planet to believe Fidel is still cool.
Guevara still is, remaining forever exalted in his martyrdom as “Che.” And the photo of his dead body is central to his legend, just as the great left-wing writer John Berger predicted in a brilliant 1967 piece, “Image of Imperialism” (reprinted in Selected Essays). Comparing the photo to paintings by Rembrandt and Mantegna, Berger argued that, while the image of the dead Guevara had been designed to demonstrate the absurdity of revolution, it was going to produce precisely the opposite effect. For Guevara represented the idea of human freedom. “He was the world symbol of the possibilities of one man,” Berger approvingly quoted a stranger as saying. And though Guevara was often headlong and inattentive (rather like George W. Bush, he could be careless about the peace that followed his battles), his failings ultimately count for very little because he symbolized the boundless willingness to fight against intolerable circumstances. As he wrote in his farewell letter to his children, “Always be capable of feeling any injustice committed against anyone anywhere in the world.”
After the broadcast of the photos of the dead Hussein brothers, the Swiss publication Le Temps wondered if “the picture of the bearded Qusay, vaguely reminiscent of the dead Che Guevara, might risk becoming a similar kind of icon for Arab youth.” You never know, but I’d bet against it. Neither Uday nor Qusay, let alone their old man, comes close to representing anyone’s ideal of freedom or heroic resistance. They stand for murder, rapine and terror — the naked exercise of power. Once they’re killed, they’re finished. Not so Guevara. Thirty-six years after his death, the world is crawling with those who want to come dressed in his image (including countless Gen-X ad men eager to appropriate his “brand”). Five years from now, the only ones who’ll be wearing pictures of Uday or Qusay are clueless punk bands and smart-ass teens who want to piss off their high school principals.