Upon hearing of the beheading of Philadelphia "contractor" Nicolas Berg in Iraq by self-proclaimed al Qaeda operatives, I searched the internet for articles on the incident. I found over a hundred news reports, most of them reporting the same thing from the same angle. A few had still photos of the victim and of his executioners.
None showed the beheading. All reported that the video of the beheading came from a "militant Islamic" or "al Qaeda connected" website, but none told what that website was called and there certainly was no link to the film clip. There were, however, a few articles stating that American news agencies had determined not to air or show the beheading. It was felt (by whom?) that the image was too strong. The image of Nicolas Berg's decapitation was being censored.
I found the video on a libertarian message board in about five minutes. Most of the video is of Berg kneeling in front of five naked men, one of whom is reading a statement in Arabic. Four and a half minutes into the clip, the men jump on the victim and start sawing his head off. When they are finished, one of the masked men holds the head up in the air, to the camera, by the hair. The image lingers for 30 seconds.
A few days earlier, the image of a female American solder dragging a naked Iraqi male prisoner on a leash appeared on the front page of my town's daily paper. This image was the newest from a batch of photos documenting the abuse and torture of Iraqis by a member of America's military espionage agencies, and their hired mercenaries. America's Secretary of Defense promised the country more images of abuse in his testimony to the US Senate. Islamic fundamentalists from Al Qaeda provided their own image of the beheading in response.
Last January, the dominant image haunting Americans was the exposed breast of pop star Janet Jackson. Politicians, pushed into action by American Christian fundamentalists, denounced the image as pornographic and called America's media titans to account for their sins. The image of the Forbidden Breast threatened to corrupt the Great Land. Now that breast doesn't mean much. Or maybe it means so much more? Given the choice between seeing an exposed breast or a man beheaded, a bare boob, or smug US soldiers posing behind a pile of naked Iraqis, I proclaim myself a Tit Man.
Now, I wait for the next image. What image will we be treated to next? Another breast? Or another dead body? Humiliation or defeat? Will the image of the head being held up to the camera linger? Or will it be trumped by a naked Iraqi being kicked into submission by an American soldier? How long will we have to wait? Will the images come with such rapidity that they flicker like an old time movie? When do we get our brutality flip book?
I do know that Americans will feast on these images. The images are our information. We live in a largely illiterate society, a society that can read but chooses not to. When it does read, for the most part, what is consumed is shallow. Often what is read is merely captions that accompany images. The words are there to sell a picture.
We value the image more than the word. We truly believe that a picture is a thousand words, never realizing that those thousand words are single syllable exclamations. Ignorant, we think of the images as knowledge.
We elect politicians based on their looks. We don't require that they produce for us written word. Our current president is proud of the fact that he does not like to read. He is an image man. And he is responsible for the images that haunt us today. The same images a result of a policy built on images, sold to the public with images.
An airliner strikes a high-rise. Another airliner takes down the high-rise's twin. A picture of a thin, bearded, turban-wearing man sticks to the screen. Another man with a huge mustache and in a military beret is the next image. Flags. Raised fists. Explosions. A female soldier being rescued. Images are staged. Images are twisted. We sit in our seats, fixed to screen.
We wake up and read the news off a screen. We get into the car and look at a map on a screen. We go to work and type into a screen for hours. We go home and turn on a screen. We get our mail on a screen. We laugh at the screen. We get sex from the screen. Image. Image. Image. Image. Active image. Passive viewer.
Today's image is of a head being held into a camera. It is the image that will determine what image comes next. The image demands a response. It does not counsel contemplation or reflection. Immediacy or introspection? It is well past time to step back from the images and start to think.