Are we celebrating murder?

2008-05-01 00:00

Experiencing or being threatened with violence is an extremely disturbing and traumatic experience. We commonly respond with correspondingly strong or extreme emotions of fear, hatred, the desire for vengeance and retribution of a similar order. We may imagine a sense of jubilation in the event of such an occurrence. We would do well to pause at some point and consider how the feelings and reactions from those of us who consider ourselves to be the victims may also be the perpetrators, or at least colluding reinforcements, of violence — although perhaps in more socially permissible ways.

A picture in a recent Weekend Witness (April 19) shows the dead body of a shot person lying on the ground presumably where he fell in death. In the foreground, a policeman stands “manfully” with his foot — not quite on the main trophy — on his gun. The picture is a hair’s-breadth away from being a perfect trophy hunt picture.

What are we to make of such an image?

That bodies are 10 a penny in the movies so what’s the harm in another picture in the press? That the Weekend Witness is a newspaper that brings you real live action satisfaction? That without doubt we must presume that the live person posing in the foreground is a good guy and that the body in the back is a bad guy, which by definition makes him fair game along with other violent, wild and/or dumb creatures, like lions for instance? That, as the adjoining text confirms, he was a “baddie” who hurt people — so it’s quite all right for all of us to get a look at him lying like a dead dog on the street? That he got what he deserved?

Probably all of the above.

Perhaps what the article is also telling us — although perhaps less purposefully and obviously — is that violence comes in many forms, some less easily identifiable than others. It tells us that, despite having the privilege of education and the economic comfort to buy newspapers, we don’t care about people being ripped apart by bullets and their bodies being publicly displayed, depending on who they are. In another way, it tells us that by celebrating the slaughter we are identifying ourselves with the right, and hopefully stronger, side. Which helps us to distance ourselves from any responsibility and culpability for the person we’re invited to gawk at in exposed violent death. After all, we wish to think, what have we got to do with the likes of him? That unpleasant object on the road?

Clearly, “we” are all those people who grew up without fearing, experiencing or practising violence for self-protection and survival on a regular basis. We were people taught how to behave nicely; for whom being done to as you did means giving and receiving love instead of violence. We are the people who have some experience of humanity to lose. We are this society.

We are also the people whose attitudes to such men as this enable a call for “shoot to kill” (when it’s from cops to criminals of course) to have popular favour; for the dismantling of anti-violence legislation like the death penalty to be called for again.

There are many points of entry or reinforcement to the cycle of violence we are currently caught in. The shooting of a criminal is one, the photograph in the Weekend Witness was another, our positive response to the photo a third.

Does this mean that nobody can be held accountable for their own violent actions? Certainly not. What it does mean is that we have to hold in ourselves the tension between individual and social culpability. Anger at the pain and suffering one cruel man has wrought must be held in one hand, while the other holds the current abuse and suffering of the majority of our citizens within our society. No amount of jubilant finger pointing at dead bodies of criminals is going to take away our collective culpability for the people we as a society produce.

So think twice about what you’re really looking at and how you’re responding next time you’re invited to celebrate publicly over the picture of somebody’s body.

• Jane Quin specialises in social justice education in the School of Education and Development, Faculty of Education, UKZN.

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