By Giles Fraser, Tuesday 20 November 2012 08.20 EST
Let’s start slowly, carefully, with what can be said. Photographs show four small children dead on the cold aluminium surface of the morgue.
They are positioned in such a way that they look like they might be sleeping together. Are these pictures real? Are they staged? That already feels too suspicious a question to be asking so early on. And one’s emotional instincts will rail against the premature engagement of critical faculties. But one needs to bracket out the feelings just for a moment.
Earlier photographs have come in from multiple reputable agencies showing these children being pulled out of the rubble. Other images show numerous film crews witnessing the same event. The children’s bodies are accompanied by the press to the morgue. Those who are trained to spot discrepancies in this sort of story believe that it hangs together. The pictures are real, so it is concluded. And once that is accepted, one immediately feels more than a little uncomfortable that their provenance was ever questioned. Like disbelieving a rape victim when she first tells you her story.
So they are real. Dead children, killed by an Israeli missile while still in their pyjamas and the sort of clothes suited to playing in the street. The western media has chosen not to show them. But they are all over the media in the Middle East. Is this a cultural difference about death – or a sensitivity (justified or otherwise) that images of dead children are easily conscripted as political propaganda? Nothing can express the horror of war more viscerally than such images. They arrived before me on the same screen that I have previously been writing a letter and playing a silly computer game. My initial reactions were as much physical as emotional. It was as if I didn’t know how to process the emotional change that spiked through my body. Later, my own sleepy boy found it puzzling that Dad had just crawled into bed with him. The disjunction between my OK but unimportant day and the biblical horrors of Gaza, all going on at the same time, was almost impossible to compute. How can I be making my children spaghetti bolognese at exactly the same time as other parents are picking the bodies of their children from out of a bomb crater? I am not asking anything here. This is simply an expression of confusion and rage.
So was it wrong to look, like rubbernecking at a car crash? Or do such photographs represent a necessary bearing witness to a gruesome reality that we spare ourselves with a sanitised version of the world?
Or, confusingly, is it both at once? There are, of course, too many question marks. It is easier to approach all this in the interrogative because it spares us the exposure of the stated position. And when faced with dead children, no one wants to say anything wrong. We retreat into the safety and piety of silence. Whereof one cannot speak thereof we must pass over in silence and all that. In other words, it’s all too horrible to speak about. Beyond words. This is an understandable reaction. But as the philosopher Gillian Rose once argued, sometimes we retreat into the language of ineffability because we are trying “to mystify something we dare not understand, because we fear that it may be all too understandable.”
So, Giles. What are you doing about all of this? That is what these photographs say to me. I make it personal because it is experienced as personal, as a direct challenge. And silence is just a fancy mechanism of avoidance, which in extreme forms can be a subtle form of complicity. These images call me out of my ordinary day – but to God knows what. Do they amplify an instinct for revenge or an instinct for making peace? As Susan Sontag has noted in her little book Regarding the Pain of Others, photographs of atrocities can produce opposing reactions in their audience. Indeed, part of the problem with the plain and simple images of dead children lying in the morgue is that they do not set these deaths in any wider narrative context. And that allows the viewer to read into them his or her own view of the world, and then cranks up the emotional volume as high as it will go.
The danger is that one is left marooned in one’s own anger when the real challenge is to find some way forward – both emotionally and politically.
Photograph of the bodies of four sibling children who were killed in Gaza today in an Israeli air strike, by Mohammed Salem (Reuters). pic.twitter.com/wB0ErW1t