Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Publishing Photos of Collateral Damage

Reaper drone (Source: The Guardian)
Last week someone left a comment on one of The Second Age's Facebook page posts about publishing graphic photographs like those taken at the Boston Marathon bombing. My argument in the post about showing the world the horror of that day and other tragedies was that it would allow the true devastation that occurred to be realized by the public. I said that editing photos or not releasing photos because they may be too graphic runs the risk of toning down the public response to the horror.

The comment left made a valid point: "Only if they also publish photos of 'collateral damage' from Predator Drones. Fair and balanced." [Quick editorial note: Because the comment was left on my personal Facebook page, I'm not going to link directly to it in case the commenter did not want his statement put up on the blog.] I agree that publishing photos of the human toll that the ever-expanding drone war that the Obama administration has undertaken would be a service to the public to help people understand on a visceral level exactly what we are doing in non-war zones in sovereign countries.

This got me thinking, though: would it make a difference? Collateral damage, which was the title of the post on the failed gun background check vote, is a military term used to designate more-or-less accidental death and destruction (usually of non-combatant targets) in the process of combat. While the Obama administration has tried to say that injury and death to civilians under the drone program is minimal, a study conducted last year by Stanford and NYU showed that almost 1,000 civilians have been killed under the program, including 176 children. The report went on to say that the strikes do more harm to American interests than good.

Which begs the question: if graphic photos from drone strikes were published, showing limbless civilians and dead children, would public perception about the program change? Or would people still defend the program, saying the civilian casualties are worth it to kill high-level targets?

I do not think it would change public perception, and if it did, it would not be enough to stop the program and find a better way to deal with international terrorism. When Anwar Al-Awlaki, an American citizen in Yemen, was killed by a drone strike along with his 16 year-old son, Obama adviser Robert Gibbs insinuated that the son deserved it, saying he needed "a far more responsible father." I'm not sure that photos of the dead teenager would persuade Gibbs and others like him to reconsider their views if they blame a minor for being put in harms way by their guardian.

But we do not need to wonder hypotheticals, when only two weeks ago our elected legislative body refused to enact universal background checks for guns that were overwhelmingly supported by the nation's population. The murder of 20 first graders at their school with a legally-purchased firearm could not sway them to vote for something as simple and common-sense as universal background checks. Would publishing the photos of the dead children have changed the minds of some of the cowardly members of Congress who voted against the bill?

Take this into account: Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) wrote a handwritten letter to the mother of a victim of the Aurora shooting saying that "strengthening background checks is something we agree on." Flake went on to join the minority of senators to vote against the background checks and prevent the bill from going through. When you're dealing with politicians this morally bankrupt, pictures - no matter how disturbing - are not going to sway them.

So while I agree that photos of victims of any kind of violence - whether inflicted by lone terrorists on behalf of their religion or by someone in Nevada on a computer on behalf of their government - should be allowed to be published to let people gauge their own views, I don't think it would necessarily create a significant shift in public perception. From a historical and photojournalistic point of view I think it is important, but I'm less convinced it would be the key driver in social change as it sometimes has been in the past.

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