Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Terror Pornography

Last month, in posing the "inconvenient hypothesis" that there was a pornographic quality to the propaganda photographs that Dorothea Lange took of the destitute victims of the Great Depression, I drew upon Plato's "Republic" to support my argument. I did not have my copy of Plato with me when I wrote that post; but, now that I want to take a broader view of that hypothesis, I have identified the critical passage. It does not take place on a battlefield, but the basic message is as I recalled it. It is in Book IV, and the use of the first person pronoun leads me to believe that it is an account being given to Socrates by Plato himself. Here is the relevant passage:

I once heard a story which I believe, that Leontius the son of Aglaion, on his way up from the Piraeus under the outer side of the northern wall, becoming aware of dead bodies that lay at the place of public execution at the same time felt a desire to see them and a repugnance and aversion, and that for a time he resisted and veiled his head, but overpowered in despite of all by his desire, with wide staring eyes he rushed up to the corpses and cried, There, ye wretches, take your fill of the fine spectacle!

In this post I am less interested in the "wide staring eyes" of either Lange or those who now view her work. Instead, I wish to consider Plato's account in the light of the work of documentarian Dan Brown, two of whose films have now been co-produced by HBO. The first, Terror in Moscow, chronicled a 2002 attack by Chechen terrorists on a Moscow theater in which they held 700 hostages. The second, Terror in Mumbai, is currently being broadcast on HBO. This purports to be "a 360-degree view" of last year's attack on multiple public sites in Mumbai (including two hotels and a Chabad center), designed and implemented by Lashkar-e-Taiba, which was formed with the goal of "liberating" Muslims living under Indian rule in Kashmir.

This is, without a doubt, an intensely chilling film, disturbing enough that I preferred watching it in two segments, each approximately half an hour in duration. What is presumably on-the-spot news footage of the attack sites is interleaved with interviews with survivors and law enforcement officials. However, the "360" effect is achieved by including recordings, supposedly gathered by those law enforcement officials, of cell phone conversations between the terrorists in Mumbai and their commander in Pakistan. Brown plays out this content with the skill of an action film director; and it is no surprise that one of his recent movies is the revenge flick Closure, which he wrote as well as directed. The "reality" of Terror in Mumbai is further enhanced by narration given by CNN host Fareed Zakaria. This is very much an experience of "wide staring eyes" that has been skillfully crafted into "fine spectacle."

So it this spectacle nothing more than pornographic excess, or does it satisfy that Supreme Court criterion of redeeming social importance? I tend to address this question the way I address any question of theatrical excess, and that is with the cui bono question. Regardless of how fine the spectacle may be, who benefits from being touched by it? As narrator, Zakaria tries to cast the entire narrative as a cautionary tale whose message is one of the need for eternal vigilance. However, there is a difference between vigilance and vigilantism. Are Brown and Zakaria whacking us on the head with a two-by-four to get us to pay attention to the reality of terrorist threats? Are they afraid that, with the passing of the Bush Administration, we shall no longer bend to the will of governmental authority out of fear; or are they trying to open a discussion on how we got into this mess as a precursor to finding a way to solve the problem?

Personally I do not think that the sentiments of this production team were either authoritarian or noble. My guess is that they just wanted to make a film that would attract a lot of eyeballs. To be fair, HBO has put up a Web page for fielding comments; but this is not a forum for discussion. It is, at best, another echo chamber where viewers can make themselves feel better by voicing an opinion. Nevertheless, attracting eyeballs is a matter of appealing to audience desire; and this takes us back to whether or not we should raise questions about the moral value of a given desire. In Plato's example it is clear that there is not moral value in Leontius' decision; but he acts the way he does to get the compulsion out of his system. In the case of the Mumbai attack, our system had already been saturated with our usual 24/7 on-the-scene-coverage treatment; and we got both through it and over it. What is the benefit in reconstructing the whole affair a year later simply for the sake of now giving voice to the terrorists?

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