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Unmaking the Nation: The Politics of Identity and History in Modern Sri Lanka (1995 | 2009).

Pradeep Jeganathan & Qadri Ismail (eds.)

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« Sovereign or Orphan: Europa and Zeus | Main | Reconciliation? »
Sunday
Oct302011

Your Horror: Our Photo

Jon Snow, the Channel 4 news presenter, who has anchored several broadcasts about Sri Lanka’s civil war, including the now well known ‘killing fields’ ‘documentary,’ always turns aside in a grave and pained way, before he airs a clip: this film he says, contains ‘very disturbing’ images of ‘death, injury and execution.’ Indeed, this may seem required and important or even ordinary and mundane as a warning, given it is a public television broadcast, but I’ve been struck by it every time I’ve heard it. There is a lot more to this statement than is apparent at first.

Broadcasts like the ‘killing fields’ documentary are part of a genre of Euro-American journalism that is as old as Vasco de Gama and Columbus, refined through the practice of anthropology in later centuries; they are about exotic horrors in places Conrad called, critically, the ‘heart of darkness,’ which are not just physically distant from the living room of an Englishman watching TV. These places, the way this story is told, are morally distant as well. They are really for that kind of journalism in another world where natives keep killing each other, not knowing why and not caring why either. Snow, or the viewer he is trying to reach, has supposedly not lived through these horrors, hasn’t seen them before, and certainly, has never, ever, been responsible for something remotely like it. That’s why he can safely say, the images you are about to see, are going to be ‘very disturbing.’ They are, what Arjun Appadurai has called, a ‘moral elsewhere.’

Monopoly
This is really all untrue, of course. No one has a monopoly on horror, be it that of Auschwitz, Hiroshima or Bhopal, or a rape or a killing, in England or in Sri Lanka. We’ve all seen it, all lived through it, and are, I would say, in an extended sense responsible for it. Last week in these columns, I offered my own suggestions on how we should address the aftermath of that horror and how we could try to begin to be reconciled with such.
But Euro-American journalists also use their disclaimers not only to sanitise their own ‘moral’ universes of ‘horror’ but also to disassociate themselves, their histories and their institutions with any responsibility for the horror they are depicting. It’s out there, of course, we had nothing to do with it, ‘its them Sinhalese and Tamils, they just killed each other.’ Sigh. Disturbing, but it’s true, and here is a photograph. Gone now is any trace of a colonial past, of divide and rule, of deliberate communal representation, but also of more modern times, arms sales and training, of this side and that, all done of course, in someone else’s name. It wasn’t us.

Unarmed man
It is this same logical cycle that we saw, live and quick, writhing before us on TV screens and the Euro American press, inscribed in the images, still and moving, of Gaddafi’s last moments. Every channel, every newspaper showed the photograph. Of course, they said it was disturbing. Then they showed it some more, and then, surprise! A big debate breaks out: ‘Was it too graphic?’ ‘Should we have shown it?” ‘Were we really grave and somber enough to show it?’ In fact, it was not surprise to me, and most of you I would take it, that such a question began to displace what you may have thought was the more urgent one, ‘should an unarmed man who was pleading for his life have been killed?’ For quite some days, the first question of ‘should we have really ‘disturbed’ ourselves,’ over shadowed the second.

When it was allowed to emerge, suddenly, the whole business of ‘grave disturbance’ was called into question: “The west wrings its hands over dead Gaddafi photos, but war is always hell,” wrote Jonathan Jones in The Guardian (a newspaper that has relentlessly editorialised for a war crimes inquiry in Sri Lanka) on the 25th: “Why is the modern western world so obsessed with the idea of a ‘just war,’ which goes back to the medieval theology of Thomas Aquinas?” The answer is clear in Jones’ own logic. This was a “NATO” war really, that is to say ‘our’ war, and as such, its “moral complexities” are reduced to this: “How many times do we need to be told that war is hell? The phrase has lost all meaning for us. Think about what hell is. Hell… is chaos. It is meaningless, monstrous, and lacks any place of safety or redemption.”
I couldn’t have put it better myself. How things change, when it’s your own world, your own life, that’s really part of the war. As it turns out, Jon Snow and his viewers don’t have to pause with such gravity and decide if their delicate sensibilities can withstand ‘grave disturbance.’ They are as much part of the making of horror as we are, they too should perhaps try to understand and reconcile themselves to that.

(was published in print, in the Nation on Sunday, on 30/10/2011)

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Reader Comments (6)

This is a wonderful post! Thanks for sharing your knowledge with us! I hope to read more of your post which is very informative and useful to all the readers. I salute writers like you for doing a great job!

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November 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterStorage Services
"Broadcasts like the ‘killing fields’ documentary are part of a genre of Euro-American journalism that is as old as Vasco de Gama and Columbus, refined through the practice of anthropology in later centuries; they are about exotic horrors in places Conrad called, critically, the ‘heart of darkness,’ which are not just physically distant from the living room of an Englishman watching TV. These places, the way this story is told, are morally distant as well. They are really for that kind of journalism in another world where natives keep killing each other, not knowing why and not caring why either. Snow, or the viewer he is trying to reach, has supposedly not lived through these horrors, hasn’t seen them before, and certainly, has never, ever, been responsible for something remotely like it. That’s why he can safely say, the images you are about to see, are going to be ‘very disturbing.’ They are, what Arjun Appadurai has called, a ‘moral elsewhere.’"

I think this whole piece is unfare. If your argument is correct what am I doing supporting Human Rights organisations? Am I too just some kind of colonial worrying over what the natives are doing to each other? I will answer that with a definite no...that is insulting to all those brave people out there trying to make the world a better place to live. That too is what Jon Snow is all about in his long reporting career,
March 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGillian Sathanandan
Absolutely outstanding, scholarly, hit-the-nail epiphany. Pradeep Jeganathan's piece is outstandingly kickass. Chapeau.
March 3, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPadma Rao Sundarji
the Channel 4 news presenter, who has anchored several broadcasts about Sri Lanka’s civil war, including the now well known ‘killing fields’ ‘documentary,’ always turns aside in a grave and pained way, before he airs a clip:
On May 19 an article by Carol Frazer of The Daily News of McKeesport, PA reported my visit to Mon Yough Catholic School. The young people welcomed me and listened as I shared the life at Urukundo Village.
August 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterFalcon Vector Art
On May 19 an article by Carol Frazer of The Daily News of McKeesport, PA reported my visit to Mon Yough Catholic School. The young people welcomed me and listened as I shared the life at Urukundo Village.
August 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterFalcon Vector Art

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