Is watching the murder of an Iranian protester caught on video a matter of bearing witness, or co-opting a tragedy?
I first saw the video (below) of Neda, a young Iranian woman who appears to be shot by the Basij during a protest in Tehran, posted yesterday at Alas, A Blog, where it came with this introduction: “The following video of the death of an Iranian protester is graphic and potentially triggering; do not view it if you feel you can not watch it. But if you can watch it, you probably should.” I’ve seen this sentiment echoed several places since then: You should watch. You have an obligation to watch. Watching, in the comfort of a safe home in a free country, is the least you can do.
I still didn’t watch, not at first. Not because I felt I couldn’t, exactly, but because I simply did not want to watch a woman’s life leave her, while her own father and other bystanders try to save her and scream helplessly. I had no interest in watching the video of Nick Berg’s beheading in 2004, either. Watching a violent death caught on tape seems so ghoulish and exploitive to me; are people really watching to bear somber witness, or merely because it’s so shocking — perhaps even perversely thrilling, in a tiny, shameful way — that we can watch? (Is it even possible to answer that question honestly?) My feeling yesterday, as it was in 2004, was that I could read the many graphic descriptions available and understand perfectly, painfully well what happened. What further purpose would watching the footage serve? Would I be honoring Neda, or just using her tragic death to feel better about myself for doing something a little more emotionally draining than putting a green overlay on my Twitter photo? Would it really teach me something important I wouldn’t otherwise know?
This morning, I forced myself to watch the video. And sadly, I was right: I did not gain any further understanding of the situation in Iran, or even of Neda’s final moments, by watching them. I did not cry or shake with horror. Because what I saw was actually too familiar to me — from crime dramas, war movies, the thousands of fictional depictions of violent deaths I’ve seen in a lifetime of watching various screens. This time, the thought kept going through my head, “This is real, this is real, this is real.” But it was no match for almost 30 years’ worth of knowing that when I see blood gushing out of a chest or a mouth, it’s actually red-tinted corn syrup; that when I see the spark of life leave a victim’s eyes, they only stay that way until the camera shuts off and the actress stands up; that when I hear the screams of frantic bystanders, they’ve been recorded over and over until the most chilling possible version was achieved. None of that was true, this time. My brain knows that, on one level — but on another, deeper level, I am so desensitized to similar imagery, I can’t fully process it. For me, watching the video didn’t bring home the gruesome reality of what’s happening to the people of Iran right now; it only reinforced that I don’t really get it, and maybe can’t. What I found most shocking was how little I was shocked.
And I can’t help noticing that, even for people who report that they were moved to tears, shakes and nightmares by the video, Neda’s murder has already become abstracted. Says Ulrike Putz, writing in Der Spiegel (and republished on Salon), “she has … become an icon, a martyr for the opposition in Iran. Neda has given the regime’s brutality a bloody face and a name. Overnight ‘I am Neda,’ has become the slogan of the protest movement.” An icon, a martyr, a symbol, a slogan. Not so much a person anymore. We don’t even know for sure if Neda, which means “the call” or “the voice” in Farsi, was her real name or an embellishment for the cause. (For that matter, as Putz points out, we can’t actually confirm that the video is real.) While her family grieves for the woman they loved, the world tweets, “Neda is my daughter, I have one just like her.” Really?
“Please let the world know,” said Hamed, the Iranian asylum seeker living in Holland who first posted the video to the Internet. In an interview with the Guardian, Hamed says he sent the clip to CNN and the BBC as well as posting it to YouTube and Facebook, because he felt it was a crucial step toward helping others understand what’s really going on in his country. It is that. There can be no doubt that social media and citizen journalism have made phenomenal changes to the way people understand the realities of politics in other countries, just as television images of Vietnam woke so many Americans up to the horror of a senseless war. It is important to let Iran know that the world is watching, and watching closely — both as a check on the powers that be and a show of solidarity with the people. But for those of us living freely in (mostly) functional democracies, there are so many things we don’t know, can’t know, no matter how obsessively we follow updates from the most reliable sources we can find, no matter how much footage of tear gas clouds and fires and murder we make ourselves watch.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t watch and link and retweet. But it does probably mean we should be awfully wary of enjoying a frisson of self-congratulation when we do, or getting so swept away by the emotional momentum of someone else’s fight — I’ve seen several bloggers express excitement and even a twisted sort of envy while watching the intensity of the Iranian people’s passionate political engagement — that we lose sight of just how much we don’t know and are not actually experiencing. We are not obligated, as compassionate people, to watch the video of Neda’s death, but I think we are obligated to acknowledge that not watching, not being there, is an incredible luxury. I am not Neda. Neda is not my daughter. And I am profoundly fortunate to be able to say those things.
You can decide for yourself if you want, or need, to watch.