Reporting from war zones is not easy. Live reporting from war zones is really not easy. Live reporting from a war zone with a plane apparently shot down by Russian-backed separatists, with corpses and personal possessions littering the ground, and the world up in arms, must count as one of the trickiest reporting jobs of all. What do you say? What do you not say? What do you show? What do you not show?
The horror is the story, yet good taste—the last outpost of good taste, as 24-hour news has trampled most concepts of good taste—dictates you cannot show the physical horror of smashed bodies and torn limbs.
Sky News’ Colin Brazier has been roundly criticized for bending down and rifling through the contents of a little pink suitcase, a little girl’s, he presumed, coming across a set of keys and a toothbrush. Suddenly, what he was doing struck him, and Brazier muttered, “We shouldn’t really be doing this, I suppose, really.” One of the relatives of a man who died in the incident has branded Brazier “sick.”
Brazier was not “sick.” He panicked and made a stupid decision. All weekend reporters in eastern Ukraine were walking a bizarre tightrope, of prurience, politesse, and ghoulishness. The horror was the dead bodies. What they couldn’t show were the dead bodies; those bodies have now been collected, released and, at the time of writing, were finally on an albeit tortured journey to the Netherlands.
So they settled on items, and the more poignant the better; hence little girls’ suitcases, teddy bears, the most personal of things. The camera lingered on these items. They were not, as one journalist wrote, “pathetic” objects, but invested with meaning—and their place there, among the sunflowers and tall grass, was intended to convey to us, the viewers, the surreal horror of what had taken place.
In newspapers, the images of bodies were pixelated; yes, in other places online, you could see more-graphic images.
It was less the actions of those reporters, standing in the fields dotted with white flags to signify a body or body part, that was telling, and more the tone of their anchors in the studio. All weekend reporters were urged to tell us what it was like there, what they could see, in as perversely vivid and terrible detail as possible. But not to show us. It was pornography—and the worst kind: all tell and no show.
We were told repeatedly that reporters could not give us a look at what was right there, just a little out of our sight, with the implication that it was really bad. The repetition of that became as tastelessly titillating as showing us a torn arm or a decomposing torso.
The arguments for not showing the human carnage at the crash site are clear and true. Of course it would be awful to show bodies of the dead without their families’ consent or knowledge; of course it would be unsuitable without prior warning being given. But as much as I sat there thinking how wrong it would be to see, I wondered if it also would serve as a piercing, necessary counterpoint to the bathos-drenched dwelling on pink suitcases and teddy bears.
This isn’t an argument to replace one visual pornography with another, although on one level, showing dead bodies and body parts is precisely that. But the most terrible images of war, the images that stay in the mind, the images that stand as immutable correctives to all those who wish to wage war or glory in it, are those images that show us what war does most literally—to kill and maim.
It seems consistently weird to dwell on horror, as much as our contemporary culture does, to summon it up on our TV dramas and news programs, then profess ourselves too squeamish to see its bloody incisions and gouges. From high school massacres to shooting rampages, from conflicts in Iraq and on the West Bank to the death of Princess Diana, we revel in death’s aftertaste but not in its hideous moment.
The Zapruder footage isn’t only stunning because its shows President Kennedy’s assassination but because it shows, explicitly, the moment of murder. The 9/11 footage that became acceptable was the disaster-movie franchise imagery of planes slamming into buildings and buildings collapsing; what was not was falling bodies, or the thwack-thwack of those falling bodies slamming into pavements.
Putin and the separatists he supplies most likely will never face the families of those who died on Flight MH17, so bring them instead face-to-face with the visual horror of what that missile did.
Generally, we like TV shots of guns being fired, of the dramatic moments leading up to a bloody conflagration, of leaders growling threats, of a murderer torturing a victim before a final, deadly move. If a moment of murder is caught and the imagery is too graphic, the screen is blurred. We jump-cut to a few seconds hence. Bodies come back in flag-shrouded coffins, and the living and maimed are hailed as heroes with purpose. Death and suffering must have dignity, and it must be sanitized.
Anyone who has experienced the tragedy of death knows what a body can look like: Even a cleaned-up dead body, washed of the strain and terrors of its last moments by an undertaker, has its own shocking immediacy. A dead body stays engraved on the memory. Yes, it has the element of nightmare to it. But I wonder if somehow finding an acceptable way of showing those bodies and limbs from Flight MH17 might finally have been better than the reporters’ standing in fields and telling us of the proximity of burnt flesh and bloody dismemberment. More than any outrage expressed to Vladimir Putin, more than any pink suitcases in the grass or fluttering white flags marking corpses and flesh, what if we, what if Putin, had seen those images in shaming actuality? The actual, truly horrific results of the missile’s handiwork arrayed horribly in the long grasses?
One theory of restorative justice holds that the perpetrator of a crime should be bought face-to-face with the results of their crime, and their victims. Putin and the separatists he supplies will most likely never face the families of those who died on Flight MH17, so bring them and us face-to-face instead with the visual horror of what that missile did. Show the world not teddy bears but severed limbs, show the bodies twisted into unimaginable landing positions, random torsos among the sunflowers. We, and Putin and the separatists, can choose to look away, but the bodies remind us about the fundamental, life-shredding horrors of war and conflict, so often waged in the abstract, with grand claims and threats.
Here, littered in lonely fields and now bagged and loaded onto trains, is the bloody reality. If anything can remind us about the futility of war, it is those wrecked, dismembered bodies. World leaders, and we, should look on them, be sickened, weep, and maybe finally learn. As Jackie Kennedy said, when refusing to clean her husband's blood from her pink suit that day in Dallas: “Let them see what they’ve done.”