Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Pornography Of Suffering

It is not because I believe in the power of empathy that I share graphic images of Palestinian casualties in Gaza.

I don't wish to rouse feelings of sympathy in the viewer, or worse, to brutalize their sensibilities.

The pornography of suffering is a slippery slope and I know how easy it is to turn fully fledged human beings into crude caricatures, into "objects of comfortable concern" for privileged outsiders to gawk at, as Edward Said put it.

But these painful images testify to the unevenness of the "conflict." You will not find images reflecting this level of savagery coming out of Israel since the assault began a week ago. They do not exist. Israeli causality counts have never been comparable to Palestinian figures.

It is not a contest, though the winners and losers know who they are.



NBC correspondent Ayman Mohyeldin: July 15, 2014 | Shifa Hospital, Gaza. Shayma Al Masry lost her mother, her sister and her brother in an Israeli airstrike. Today, her father and her doll are all that are by her side. We spent the day at Gaza's Shifa Hospital and spoke to people behind the numbers. #theyhavenames #gaza #israel #palestine Watch our report from inside Shifa hospital tonight @nbcnightlynews @nbcnews

This war is not being fought by evenly matched rivals. It's being waged by a powerful settler-colonial state founded on ethnic cleansing against a stateless, indigenous refugee population. It is a grossly mismatched struggle between the occupier and occupied.

I am a broken record, I know. I keep blathering on about occupations and apartheid and the mismatched military might that leads to the use of excessive force and Israel's contravention of numerous international conventions and laws, like the principle of proportionality, and how Palestinians have a right to resist being penned up like animals and abused and collectively punished for resisting their oppressors. 

Broken f**king record. Ad nauseam, right?

But the fact is we live in an era no different from all the others, where atrocity is still normalized as political theater. So folks need to keep calling things by their proper names until they stick, until, ultimately, Israel's narrative of victimology is deconstructed and replaced with a human rights framework powerful enough to address the Palestinian people's struggle for self-determination.

Plucky little Israel is not under attack. Israel has long possessed a superior military and states do not have the right to self-defense in international law against the territories they occupy. Israel's dominant hand is what has allowed it to suspend the rights of the Palestinian people and systematically dispossess them of their land. Since its creation in 1948, Israel has been engaged in a massive land-theft scheme similar to the violent expropriation of Indigenous land in the United States.

My main objective in sharing these images is not to move people to moral action (though I hope you will be). "Empathy fatigue" is too high of a risk, with much of the public already numb, self-protectively disassociating themselves from the pain of others. Some folks just lack the imaginative freewill and feeling to relate to strangers, especially those living in distant lands.  

These images are important and should be shared because they expose and catalog Israeli crimes, they bear witness. They form a part of the historical record that is in need of correction, due to the exclusion of Palestinian experiences.

I don't want the viewer to fall into the trap of "feeling sorry" for the Palestinians. As Helene Cixous referred to it, pity is a "badly-thought-out-love." It is patronizing. It turns pain into a spectacle. But don't turn away, either. Let these pictures educate you on the waves of destruction immobilizing life in Gaza. Let them tell their own story.

In the context of America's blind support for Israel, to hold these images in the mind is to commit a thoughtcrime, a challenge to the status quo that places an outsized spotlight on Israeli figures, which expands the definition of 'casualty' whenever possible, as Phan Nguyen explains in Mondoweiss:

As I also reported, injuries resulting from rocket and mortar strikes are exaggerated. Israel’s casualty counts always incorporate numbers of people who have been treated for “shock and anxiety,” as well as “light injuries” resulting from the rush to safety, such as “falling down the stairs.”

2,332 funerals have been held in Gaza since 2005; 61 in Israel.

Neither side is in an enviable position, but it is clear that the suffering of both sides is as poorly matched as their military capacities. Palestinians are outgunned and facing far greater loses.

As the hashtag indicates, #TheyHaveNames and hers is Shayma. Here is a quick glimpse into her life and the reality of being the "lesser victim":

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Update 7/16/2014: I awoke to the news of a fresh massacre today. Four Palestinian children were slaughtered by an Israeli airstrike while playing on the beach. Their names are "Ahed Atef Bakr, 10, Zakaria Ahed Bakr, 10, Mohamed Ramez Bakr, 11, and Ismael Mohamed Bakr, 9."


One of the four children killed. 


A devastated mother.

Mohyeldin: July 16, 2014 | Shifa Hospital, Gaza. A Palestinian mother reacts to the news that her son was one of those killed by an Israeli shelling on the Gaza Sea Port where they were playing #gaza #israel #palestine

This video, from NBC's award winning correspondent Ayman Mohyeldin, shows the moment the mother above learns that her son has been killed. Words cannot begin to describe the crippling anguish captured here: Video Post by Ayman Mohyeldin.

And here is footage of the immediate aftermath of the bombing - four little bodies covered in blood lie crumpled in the sand like tattered rag-dolls: Video Post by Watania Media Agency.

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