Why you downloaded and how you feel about revenge: Readers respond to Neal Gabler's "Downloading Death" and Charles Taylor's "Payback Time."

By Salon Staff

Published May 18, 2004 8:00PM (EDT)

[Read "Downloading Death," by Neal Gabler.]

In your article "Downloading Death," by Neal Gabler, the author notes, "Not to know is to be condemned to eternal geekdom." This is incorrect, because the pinnacle of geekdom is knowing every type of computer, every graphics chip, and every obscure command for the Linux command line. The knowledge in this case may seem irrelevant to the teenager who knows all about the fashion trends, but each subculture has its own realms of knowledge.

Furthermore, in the geek's world a lack of knowledge of pop culture is often seen as admirable -- that someone could avoid a popular TV show or new band so well. "I've never seen an episode of 'Friends'" becomes as respectable as knowing which laptop is the best. A fashion-conscious teenager might take equal pride in not knowing anything about computers.

-- Owen Williams

My experience was much like Gabler's. The description of the video was enough for me. I had no intention of watching the video, but I was reading an article about it, and that article included a link that would take me right to it. No work required on my part at all. Like Gabler, my finger hovered, but I decided that in viewing it I would not learn one single thing I didn't already know.

I work for a newspaper, and a few weeks ago I recommended in a column that people view a short Holocaust movie, "Night and Fog." I think the difference lies in scale. The sheer numbers of the Holocaust dead breeds instant disbelief; it is too much to take in and process. In the case of the Holocaust, viewing the footage is vital; no matter what you think you can imagine, the footage shows you weren't imagining big enough.

Here's to a time when all we're asked to imagine is the world postulated in John Lennon's song.

-- John Ginn

Neal Gabler's "Downloading Death" is a bit too simplistic.

Gabler is on to something regarding the motivations of those who watched "the video" for reasons neither prurient nor involving the pursuit of a deeper understanding (although I have a hard time picturing how the latter goal can be attained this way). His conclusions are no doubt correct as they concern some, but his obvious distaste for those who took the step beyond the common hesitation we all shared at the "mouse click of no return" prevents him from honestly and dispassionately understanding those like myself who did click on the button.

Gabler describes a sort of matter-of-fact, need-to-know chic that is paper-thin and contemptible, motivating many to view the horrifying clip. Unfortunately, he stops there, just short of my own (and others') motivation. Perhaps this is more of a by-product of my own Catholic upbringing, but after reading the Salon back-and-forth letters praising and condemning the posting of a link to the video, I felt a need for knowledge, but not in a casual way -- rather in what felt like a deeply burdensome sense of a responsibility to know.

Whether I was just being suckered by the gripes of the right-wingers castigating the media for showing the prison-abuse photos but avoiding images of the documentation of "the enemy's" atrocities, I can't say. Maybe I felt a need to inoculate myself against this sort of dismissal of my own antiwar stance. Whatever the case, at some point I decided I had to see it and dreaded doing so.

Having seen it (and now being deeply haunted by it), do I feel I was correct to do so, or as my wife believes, did I just add to a gruesome feeding frenzy that only eggs psychopathic terrorists on? Honestly, I'm a lot less sure than I was when I decided to watch in the first place.

But I'll say one thing -- when the last few seconds of the video stream choked as the audio became erratic (causing me to miss part of the widely reported close of the video), I did not choose to reload it and try to complete the experience. I got the hell away from my computer.

-- John Odum

I disagree with Gabler's premise. I too hesitated with my hand on the mouse and ended up watching the video because I felt it was my responsibility as a taxpayer and citizen supporting the war, no matter how unwillingly, to view the havoc we've contributed to. I grew up during the civil rights movement and Vietnam War. Visual images are what made those eras real to many of us. Images that stayed with us in the voting booth, during protest marches, and when we might have otherwise been hesitant to act. What I could imagine about this gruesome act and what I saw were a world apart.

-- Kathleen Prentice

Today, I viewed the beheading of Nicholas Berg. It was easy to access: a couple of mouse clicks and software that must have come with my computer when I purchased it four years ago, which I didn't even realize was installed. That shows you how often I watch streaming video.

Why did I ultimately watch it and why did it take so long? I hadn't planned to look. I don't even like gruesome scenes when I know they're not real. But then I began to read, in the media, about the ways in which the event, and the video, were being treated -- by the media. It was a very self-referential story. For one thing, it seemed clear that media in different countries were treating the story and the images differently. There was the sanctimonious universal lip service paid to not disturbing anyone's sensibilities, while what my husband calls "Cable Pravda" broadcasts ugliness and violence relentlessly. And there was that image of Berg, sitting in front of five face-covered men staring out. I feel for his family that even this image was floating out there. But there it was and it was virtually everywhere. Did he know what was about to happen? How scared was he? (Very scared, I imagine.) Which one did it? Was al-Zarqawi the one in the middle? Where would the knife come from? It was hard to tell.

What finally led me to take a look was the news coverage of Congress watching the photographs of the abuse at Abu Ghraib. I didn't want to see any more photos of that either. But again, a few were everywhere and then there was this private viewing of 1,800 others. We were to hear how shocked everyone was -- and they should be. But this is a war that has fed on the nipple of hypocrisy since the beginning, last year. Where was all this righteous indignation and offense at the gratuitous loss of life, and the distorted rationales that led to it, last year? With a few exceptions, it went missing. And I strongly believed that there was more titillation Wednesday than was acknowledged. Although this clearly went beyond what was legal and what was called for, what did those who had cynically supported the war expect would happen to Iraq and its citizens? They may not have expected literal sodomy -- I sincerely hope they did not -- but they and their supportive media must have realized that there would be figurative sodomy. These were not the people and institutions that I wanted to be deciding what I should and should not see.

As someone who has taught a seminar in visual sociology, I was struck by the nonverbal behavior of the five co-conspirators in murder. Although their behavior clearly deems them monsters, the two on the end, earlier in the video, seemed like general "screw-ups," the kind I've seen before. They were fidgety, their weight constantly shifting, as if they wanted the interminable reading of prose to finish already so that they could sit down. The one in the middle, who has now been identified as al-Zarqawi, seemed to get his pages mixed up, first and second, front and back, as if he hadn't practiced enough before his speech. I was surprised at how long it takes to cut off a person's head. It takes longer than it does in the movies. But then again, so does this spurious war.

-- Susan H. Gray

[Read "Payback Time," by Charles Taylor.]

Brilliant exegesis of the present American mindset. Taylor's chilling observation that the left and right could meet in the middle on what happened at Abu Ghraib is particularly disturbing. Just this week at the very diverse high school where I work, a female student remarked that the inmates of Abu Ghraib deserved everything they got and more. This was before the Berg beheading. She was commenting after a teacher merely referred to the news story without offering any opinion about its merits. Be advised that the generation in most of our secondary schools bears no resemblance to those who rightly questioned Vietnam. This generation, particularly those who do not fear any imminent personal sacrifice in Iraq, is very open to accepting Abu Ghraib as just the way war is meant to be. Bush and Rumsfeld need not fear a student uprising; these students only parallel the '60s generation insofar as sexual mores and drug use are concerned.

-- C. Casteel

Were you in front of your TV when Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald? Was your first impulse to cheer?

I remember that feeling and that visceral excitement of revenge.

It was wrong then. It's still wrong. As a Christian I believe in sin and its inevitability. But being a sinner does not make sin right.

-- Albert Savoy

Charles Taylor is free to admit fantasies of torturing Osama bin Laden. He has no justification for declaring that all U.S. citizens harbor such fantasies.

I assure Taylor, and others, that no one in my family fantasizes tortures for bin Laden or any other terrorist. They should be captured, tried and sentenced appropriately.

Taylor is correct in suggesting a contemporary decline of morality. Our Liar-in-Chief calls for the death or capture of terrorists; death is always the first alternative. His faith in superstition permits him to condemn and seek to murder those he classes as terrorists. The decline in morality is approved in the Oval Office and abetted by too many legislators.

-- Reinald S. Nielsen

Charles Taylor's essay makes the mistake of assuming the personal to be universal.

He writes:

"Since 9/11, I'd guess that nearly every one of us has had thoughts of torturing someone. (I confess that I'd like Osama bin Laden to be dropped naked by helicopter into Times Square at rush hour and told he can live if he can survive for one block. And I find it hard to become indignant over the New York Times report of the harsh interrogation methods used on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.) We have all been the heroes of the vigilante movies playing in our minds."

No "we" haven't. I'll grant most people contemplate revenge during their lives, but it's a big, crazy stretch to equate this with fantasies of torture. Nor was a lust for vengeance the only reaction "we" had to 9/11 (as Salon documented in 2002).

I'm sure Taylor didn't intend to, but he repeats a creepy meme that excuses Abu Ghraib with the claim that we all harbor dark urges that will emerge in the right circumstances. The soldiers who blew the whistle on the abuse are just one example this isn't exactly true. "We" can choose to be humane, even under great duress.

Taylor seems sort of proud of his indifference to Khalid and the brutal thoughts 9/11 allowed him to indulge in. His desire to say "we" felt the same says more about his character than the nature of us all.

-- Greg Gillam

Excellent article. Mr. Taylor raises some powerful points. I was, quite frankly, amazed when Bush and Rumsfeld expressed disgust at the torture photos. For the first time, it actually seemed like they were taking a moral stand on something (as opposed to pretending to for political gain). It comes as no surprise that they should backpedal soon as they realized their "outrage" isn't going to get them out of political hot water. So sad that the very people who position themselves as moral leaders tend to be the biggest moral cowards, but I suppose that makes a grim sort of sense. Genuine moral thinkers are the greatest enemies to the current administration. What better way to shut them down than to pretend to speak for all of them?

-- Theo Foreman

Every time I see the Abu Ghraib photos, all I can think is, "Your tax dollars at work."

We are paying for this. We are paying the cretins who followed those orders. We are paying the people who gave them the orders. We are paying the dog-ate-my-homework crowd in the Bush administration who could not be bothered to read a report, or to pay attention to it if they read it.

We are paying for this, every one of us, with every paycheck, with the checks we sent on April 15. Our children will be paying for it, too. I do not understand why the entire country is not up in arms to call the Bush administration to account for this.

-- Ruth Adar

I'm amazed that the acts of torture in Abu Ghraib didn't more closely resemble those in "Man on Fire." If I were in the soldiers' shoes in the prison, I, too, might find it hard to restrain myself if I believed the prisoners in my charge had a) recently killed a friend or friend of a friend, b) I was potentially saving lives of friends by getting info out of the prisoners, and c) my commanders were telling me to do it (which, despite the administration's denials, had to have been going on).

It would probably take a stronger man than I to resist those forces. Before we, the civilians, pass judgment on the U.S. soldiers about to be court-martialed, we should try to put ourselves -- not our romanticized "do-gooder" versions of ourselves, but the honest versions -- in the soldiers' boots and see if we wouldn't have fared better. Having not been in their boots, it's impossible to say.

-- Christian Breiding

As Charles Taylor illustrates in his essay, the conflict in Iraq has clearly passed from the initial, "America as liberator" stage, into the uglier but more sincere "eye for an eye" stage, where Americans justify their abuse of Iraqis with prior Iraqi wrongdoings, and vice versa. In other words, it is well under way to becoming a full-fledged, Vietnam-style quagmire, with the same demonizing, willful ignorance and simplistic revenge fantasies enacted by both sides. If anything, this war has revealed how nothing has really changed in America since the '70s, and clearly demonstrates how the country is incapable of learning from history.

-- Jean-Martin Lapointe

I confess I haven't seen "Man on Fire" -- despite recommendations from my parents, who loved it -- for precisely the reasons you point out. I am not in the mood for mindless revenge right now. If I must watch Denzel Washington in a righteous mode, I prefer to watch "The Siege," a movie I thought was eerily prescient when viewed after 9/11. In that film, the Army occupies NYC in the wake of a terrorist bombing campaign and begins its own pattern of torture to extract information. Although no film is perfect as an allegory, this one comes close when Washington himself delivers a speech saying, in essence, if we do this, we become what we are fighting. I'd recommend it to anyone who just watched "Man on Fire" (and while I'm making recommendations, watch "Three Kings," too).

-- Chris Lepley

In the article "Payback Time," Charles Taylor discusses several moral quandaries that I agree with. He talks about the obvious naiveté of those who think the U.S. involvement in war is humane. I however am concerned about the passage in which he encourages us to "not use the Nuremberg defense to fool ourselves" in defense of the low-ranking soldiers, explaining further, "If somebody points a gun at you and says, 'Kill your friend or I will kill you,' he is tempting you to kill your friend. That is all." This Nuremberg defense does not excuse crimes against humanity, but it certainly needs to be considered when punishing them and their chain of command. The system that spawned these soldiers did much more than just tempt them to commit these crimes.

A soldier is never trained to refuse an unlawful order. Nor could most even clearly define that thin line when an order becomes unlawful. It may be brought up once in some dismal training class during boot camp between drills and dehydration, maybe again a second time early in the career during a technical training class. It will rarely be mentioned again if ever. While no training place in the military is rich in the moral debate, what is learned in its place is that standing out is bad. For just about any kind of deployment the common theme is, essentially, what goes on here, stays here. When sent to war, where one is far from base, home, friends and family, and all a soldier has is a calendar to count down the days, more rules will be bent. When something questionable happens, they are taught to turn their heads away. They will see, when others do not, that those in charge can make their lives miserable. This will be reinforced day in and day out with even the smallest things.

Going about your daily work with blinders on is the norm. It does not surprise me that many people knew about these crimes and only one stood up to it. What does surprise me is that one kid actually did. I know that crimes against humanity are not just "questionable" things, but keeping such perceptions clear is not that easy once you lived your entire career that way. It is not just about standing up for human rights. It is about standing up to a system you depend on to survive, standing up to a system that has taught you to look away or it will make your world miserable, standing up to a system that will take care of those in power and only those that do not cause problems. To think the life of a low-ranking soldier is any different is truly naive.

Notice the rank of those about to be court-martialed. They stand to get a federal conviction, while any officers who may be involved will likely only receive a letter in their files. Yes, an officer's chance of promotion may be jeopardized, as if a one-star general needs to be promoted any further, but officers can return to the civilian world in their own time, unscathed, after finishing their tour. If they are close to retirement they might even continue on with full benefits and a pension.

The low-ranking soldiers could have their pay cut to minimum rank for their remaining time, lose their jobs, be imprisoned, and be felons for life.

What are the true lessons that soldiers are going to be taught when this is all done?

-- Andrew Hansen

Salon Staff

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