Scenes from a war

Two scenes from Iraq stood out the past week. In one, footage of a US Marine shooting what appeared to be an injured insurgent in a mosque, apparently killing him, was broadcast around the world. The second scene we did not see. It appeared to show the murder of Margaret Hassan, the director of CARE International’s Iraqi branch. Al Jazeera said it had received a video of a blindfolded woman, who appeared to be Hassan, being shot in the head by a hooded gunman. Although it played the Marine incident repeatedly, the channel said it would not show the Hassan tape, arguing that it only shows war-related deaths. We had two tapes showing the apparent killing of defenseless victims. From there, the differences between the two began to show the complexity of the relationship between the most primitive human instincts and the technology that can transport a single death around the world instantly. The one image became part of the international narrative on the war, pouring oil on the fire of Arab and Muslim suspicions that the Americans are out to humiliate them. It showed combat troops entering a space that until a little earlier had been an enemy outpost. With them, though, was a cameraman on assignment for NBC who was «embedded» with the unit. It is obvious that no one at the Pentagon would have wanted such footage to be made public, and yet it was, just as the photographs from the Abu Ghraib Prison were. For anyone who still believes in a free media’s enlightening role, «embedding» worked better than expected. Margaret Hassan’s killers, on the other hand, wanted her murder to be shown. That’s why they killed her. The video was not shown but the horror was no less for this. These two images came at us like shadows on the walls of Plato’s cave. We can only shudder at the terrible fire that casts them, and which we cannot see.