The Media Zone

How the media make sense and nonsense of the world.

Gadaffi's Death and Graphic Media Images

Death scenes do not wear well on the human psyche

Images of the brutal, sustained beating, kicking and pummeling of the wounded but still apparently conscious and reactive body of Libya's deposed President, Muammar Gaddafi seared across the screen on Al Jazeera's Internet site.  According to Reuters, he was captured cowering in a drainage pipe full of rubbish. Watching it with eyes stunned and mouth agape, I instantly recalled visual memories of the video images of the hanging of Iraq's dictator, Saddam Hussein, who was captured in  comparable squalor.  These are mean settings, incongruous with the power, trappings and privilege with which these dictators once strode across the world's fickle stage. 

 Then, as if tracking a Power Point presentation of the fate of 20th century's greatest-dictators-brought-low, my mind conjured up vague memories of footage of the bullet-ridden bodies of Romania's former dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife.  Reaching further back, my mind stumbled on film footage of the fresh corpses of Italy's WWII era, fascist dictator and Hitler ally, Benito Mussolini and his mistress.  This was footage shot when they were hanging, in a public display. Their still bodies managed to evoke the pent-up anger, wrath, and hatred of endless packs of war-fatigued Italians who passed by just to make sure Il Duce was really, truly dead, and then paused for a few blows. 

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 The brutal treatment meted out to all these dictators by their citizen-victims is still hard to watch.  Sitting at the safe remove of my lap top screen, I initially see only the helpless bodies.  I do not see the afterimage of the reign of brutality that they wreaked upon their fellow countrymen and women, often for crimson-stained decades.

 But what if this broken body is not that of your dictator?  What if it's a tyrant whose truncheon of evil touched you, but only vicariously or indirectl? Then it's difficult not to instinctively feel something akin to pained empathy for another human being.

 Until that is, your cognitive gears switch to reminders of what this monster had done, so long and so pervasively, that there is little humanity left to relate to.  He has forfeited his humanity and your compassion.

 At that moment, empathy and understanding force a switch of emotional allegiance to the victims-now-brutalizers, as they enact their revenge-enrapturing, passion play.

 

How sweet the revenge. But how long before clearer minds retrieve painful, ineradicable memories?  Then chronic grief re-emerges, with that hidden agenda of questions that have only scantly stepped aside. 

After all, how much revenge can you inflict to balance the emotional books on a Hitler, Hussein or Gaddafi?  They can only die once--despite what wise men say about cowards.  Commensurate punishment for their sins against humanity can only come from other, transcendent sources of justice and retribution.

No surprise then, that we worry about the reactions of children or fragile adults who see the graphic footage of death, suffering, and barbarity from which our Western media sensibilities often shield us.

Children with little or no understanding of man's capacity for brutality and revenge and no grasp of political theater in all its brutishness, will not comprehend events unfolding on the screen.  They may only be frightened by images of someone being beaten bloody by chanting, cheering, crying, wailing mobs.

 Adults may understand but  still be revolted and nauseated. 

Media scenes of death and dying do not wear well on the human psyche and need be approached with a caution that comes from knowledge of individual tolerances, one's own included.  Just desserts is not a visual dish that matches the emotional pallet of every viewer.

 

Stuart Fischoff, Ph.D., is Senior Editor of the Journal of Media Psychology and Emeritus Professor of Media Psychology at Cal State, Los Angeles.

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