Cool heads are needed when horror is writ large
It was not until I recently heard an art historian visiting Australia to talk about Guernica – the iconic anti-war painting by Pablo Picasso – that I connected the dots of why the 9/11 attacks had such a penetrating impact on the global community.
Art historian Professor Timothy J Clark was explaining in a Sydney Ideas lecture why Picasso’s depiction of the world’s first terrorist air-raid continues to have political currency in the post-9/11 era, despite the existence of more “real” forms of media than existed in 1937.
Clark said that in essence Picasso managed to communicate what it is really like to be bombed. He told me after the speech that “Guernica wouldn’t have its continuing political relevance if it didn’t somehow manage to wrench the material reality of suffering out of that black and white virtual world”.
In a similar way, the televised events of 9/11 crashed through the confines of the kind of violence you see in the nightly news or a Hollywood blockbuster, and made what was happening real to the viewer by showing people being killed in real time.
Moreover, those attacked were not faceless third-world victims but everyday New Yorkers. Who among us doesn’t have a second or third degree-of-separation story about someone who was in Manhattan or even in one of the Twin Towers that day?
And yet for those of us not on the scene in downtown Manhattan, our experience of the 9/11 attacks was one of mediated reality and not reality itself. Mesmerised as we all were, seeing the terrible scenes of that day over and over again had the effect of magnifying the death of 3,000 people and two buildings into something more akin to an Armageddon or holocaust.
I am not at all convinced that the attacks being caught on tape led to a saner response than if we had to rely on good journalism and great art to make sense of it all, as was the case when Picasso painted his giant masterpiece in 1937 and The Times journalist George Steer broke the news of the attack to the world from his on-the-scene vantage point in northern Spain.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, celebrated war correspondent Mark Danner was keenly aware of how vulnerable American democracy was at that moment to the ills of politics driven by fear.
He wrote in the New York Times a month after the attacks: “The 19 men who changed the world on September 11 used as their primary weapon not box cutters or jet airliners but something more American and much more powerful: the television set. The box cutters and the planes were tools in constructing the great master image, the Spectacular; the television set was their delivery vehicle”.
Danner knew how rash governments can be when disturbing images take over the public discourse as they did in the wake of September 11. “The Spectacular thereby transformed American foreign policy, previously a matter of disregard among most Americans, into a vital question of their own security, a matter of their own life and death“.
The long-term effects of hastily made decisions in the weeks after the 9/11 attacks are still with us ten years later. Exhibit A is the war in Afghanistan, which was basically planned on the back of an envelope. Deaths of soldiers in recent weeks have seen Federal Parliament pause for silence and the stories lead national news bulletins.
However any serious debate about Australia’s commitment to that war – along with any substantial information about what is really going on over there – seems to be off limits.
Another pertinent example of how highly emotive images can cause reactive rather than intelligent decisions is the Gillard Government’s suspension Australia’s live cattle exports as a direct response to the Four Corners program on 30 May. No doubt the makers of the documentary felt proud that they had such influence on our leaders.
Never mind the issues of both human and animal welfare as thousands of cattle were left stranded without feed, and the primary producers who continue to swallow the financial impact of the whole ordeal.
Developments this week have shown that despite the government’s decision to resume trade with Indonesia, the whole affair will continue to have knock-on negative effects on Australian producers for months (if not years) to come.
The cruelty to animals shown in that documentary was certainly horrendous and criminal, and I don’t begrudge those with strong feelings about animal welfare to have their voices heard. What I object to is when these voices strategically oust others from debate in the way they did on this issue.
We need leaders who are willing to balance the pros and cons of a situation, as well as the short-term and long-term consequences of abrupt changes in policy. Whether it be over matters of war, trade or whatever else, I feel often our elected leaders take too lightly the lives and livelihoods at stake in their decision-making.
They seem to fear too greatly the twists and turns of public sentiment and those carrying the parliamentary balance of power.
There is no going back to the days of old media, and nor should there be. But let’s make sure that cool heads prevail in moments of hysteria.
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