On the very day of 9/11, one of the wisest men I’ve known said that the choice it would present for us would be between experiencing the attack as an imagery and experiencing it as an injury. If you allowed it to become imagery, running on perpetual loop in your mind (the planes exploding, the people leaping), you would never be past it. If you experienced it as an injury—a horrific one, but of specific dimensions and significance, a criminal atrocity rather than an intimation of apocalypse—you had a chance to go on. The wise man was himself ill with a fatal cancer as he spoke, so this distinction provided him a lifeline of sanity: if you saw your bad MRI as a death sentence, your life would stop before it ended; if you thought of it simply as a picture of a particular condition, your life went on. His model of conduct came from a character like Ed Harris’s flight director in “Apollo 13.” Let’s work the problem, people. Let’s not make things worse by guessing. What had happened to the American habit of pragmatic appraisal and a refusal to panic?
Well, nowhere to be found, and still missing. In the contest of imagery versus injury, imagery won in straight sets—the specifics of the injury have been lost in floods of hysteria. If there is one worst moral casualty of the past decade and a half, it surely lies there: Americans have gone from being the hardest of peoples to panic to among the most easily panicked people on the planet. In New Hampshire, the Granite State with the defiant license plate, security fears are dominating the senatorial campaign. New Hampshire voters—including, it seems, New Hampshire mothers, for whom Islamist terrorism seems less of a danger than lightning at picnics, to say nothing of drunk drivers and proliferating guns—are panicked enough to think of voting for a “security” Republican. Even New Yorkers, who have legitimate reasons to be frightened—though they’ve learned from experience that one can live one’s fears or live one’s life, not both—are encouraged by the Murdoch media, among others, to be very, very frightened, far in excess of any realistic appraisal of the risk from a makeshift army of terrorists in the desert.
What is the trigger of this panic? Once again, it’s the imagery—the “damn pictures,” as Boss Tweed might have called them. The repellent videos (and the still frames from them, the videos themselves having gotten properly little airplay) have panicked and outraged the world: American and British hostages on their knees in a vast desert, about to be decapitated—in what are wrongly called executions, which gives them a procedural legitimacy that they ought not to be allowed—by glowering villains, real-life Ra’s al Ghuls right out of the nihilistic League of Shadows. Murder as a publicity stunt is not a new development; it is exactly what terrorism is. But these images have somehow broken new terror territory. It is hard to believe that, without them, we would now be bombing Iraq and Syria and trying to eliminate ISIS.
We are at once inured to the undifferentiated imagery of horror and deeply vulnerable to specific images, to images of people like us alive and helpless in the face of death. The three elements—alive, helpless, like us—seem essential to provoking terror through imagery. The fear of the living moves us in ways that the bodies of the dead do not. (The most devastating photograph from the Holocaust may be that of the mother on the Eastern front clutching her baby while the Germans shoot both.)
These terrorists have become skilled at manipulating the Western imagination. There is an easy explanation for why this is so—it is because they are themselves in so many ways Western. For all the talk of terrorist refuges in the Middle East and Central Asia, the ringleaders of the 9/11 attacks were partly educated in the West—based in Hamburg in the nineties, accommodated in their terrible training in Florida. And it is often the children of immigrants to the West, exposed to the humiliations they think visited on their faith and distressed by the uncertainties of an open society, who turn toward fundamentalism—not for its own sake, but as a weapon against the shaming other, who bewilders and enrages them. They create what amount to GIFs of this other’s helplessness, which is what 9/11 was intended to produce, too.
The looping images are the point. This isn’t new. As the Princeton historian Gary J. Bass, the author of a terrific study of the history of humanitarian intervention, “Freedom’s Battle,” told me, “It’s the imagery that drives politicking about atrocities abroad.” This connection seems to have existed, he points out, since as early as the eighteen-twenties, when Ottoman atrocities against the Greeks led Eugène Delacroix to make his quickly universalized paintings “Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi” and “The Massacre at Chios”; the latter shows a Greek woman being raped by a turban-wearing Turk. In 1876, William Ewart Gladstone, the Liberal magus then in semi-retirement, took up the horrors of the Ottomans’ brutal repression of Bulgarian nationalists; four years later, his growing indignation helped bring down the Disraeli government. There again, images played an essential role: Punch and other political magazines were filled with drawings of piles of undifferentiated bodies, with British politicians either turning away in indifference or turning toward them in horror. With a rhetoric eerily prophetic of our own, Gladstone drew a distinction between the Islam of the peaceful and that of the religion’s abusers—though in this case it was the Turks who were said to incarnate evil Islam, as opposed to the more noble Arabs:
It is not a question of Mohammedanism simply, but of Mohammedanism compounded with the peculiar character of a race. They [the Turks] are not the mild Mohammedans of India, nor the chivalrous Saladin’s of Syria, nor the cultured Moors of Spain. They were, upon the whole, from the black day when they first entered Europe, the one great anti-human specimen of humanity.
Bass points out, citing Paul Slovic, a psychologist, that the key to an image lies in its individuality—in, for instance, the Greek woman. “People don’t respond to statistics but do respond to individual suffering,” he writes. Numbers numb, but faces force.
Yet there is a difference between now and then, and it’s a big one. The Victorians created images in the shape of their arguments; we create our arguments in the shape of our images. Appalled by the execution videos, we craft plans to keep us from having to watch another one. Our policies take root in a righteous anger. Who wouldn’t want revenge on such hideous people? And so our good instincts are held hostage by an imagery that we can’t escape but can’t turn into a practical plan. The response to the Bulgarian atrocities led to Russia starting a war with Turkey, and to a horrific countermassacre of Turks by the Russians and their allies, culminating in particularly violent and vicious pogroms of the Jews, whom the Turks historically had protected. This new panic forced the Congress of Berlin, which divided Bulgaria, creating the short-lived (and now forgotten to all but philatelists) land of Eastern Rumelia. It was one of the many tangled Balkan fuses that lit the path to the Great War.
Humanitarian interventions never begin without strong pictures and good reasons. Too often they end in Eastern Rumelia. Doing everything we can to stop savagery from hurting the helpless is not the same thing as letting barbarism lead us around by the nose—or, rather, the eyes. Reprisal born of optical reflex may work out this time in Iraq and Syria, but if it does it would be a rare thing. Wars provoked by pictures tend to begin in clear outlines and bright colors. Imperfection being the inevitable state of human projects, the imagery at the end is always blurred and bloody. This is a truth worth keeping present in our minds, even as it escapes our vision.