Violence and Memory

We glimpse mediated justice in the act of happening.

by David Morgan

Late one night the President of the United States suddenly appears on television. In our post-9/11 world, the first guess about why is a terrorist attack. It’s too late in the evening for a planned appearance. I brace for images and bad news. But the President announces the death of Osama bin Laden. After ten years of searching, the U.S. government has found the facilitator of the attacks of September 11, and only moments ago executed him on the spot. He might have waited until morning to herald the news, but President Obama acts promptly in order to take charge of the news cycle. He dares not delay, for the Internet will spread the news around the globe, leaving the administration to appear reticent, or worse, timid. The news is capital to be spent to great effect. And the margin of time in which to do so is pressing. These are the days of immediate, global ubiquity. There is no local news. A preacher burns a copy of the Qur’an in Florida and there are riots in the cities of Afghanistan. Indeed, the top-secret helicopter assault on Bin Laden’s compound is simulcast by a local tweeter.

In breaking the news, the president spent the first moment of his remarks eliciting images, a collage of images that Americans harbor in their mind’s eye, “seared into our national memory,” as Obama put it: “hijacked planes cutting through a cloudless September sky; the Twin Towers collapsing to the ground; black smoke billowing up from the Pentagon; the wreckage of Flight 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.” We walk about with a common archive in our heads, placed there by the public artifacts of modern life: films, music, news footage of tragedies, triumphs, the famous and the infamous, endlessly accessed and replayed on the Internet. These archives, shaped by national interest, form the imaginary of a nation. They are the language of common life and they operate as a kind of sensory paradigm in the construction of national memory. If something is important, it must conform more or less to the taxonomy and logic of the imaginary that constitutes cultural memory and the lived experience of national identity. So Obama evoked the images of 9/11 to frame the news of Bin Laden’s death.

It is difficult to miss the preeminent role that visuality has come to play in the age of 9/11, inside the increasingly visible state security apparatus that envelopes the nation. The White House issued a photograph showing the administration’s leadership gathered in the Situation Room to watch the mission via live satellite connection. It’s an incredible image because it is both very posed and very poignant. Everyone is clearly visible in a group portrait of decisive action. Obama’s grim brow and Hilary’s gesture of shock suggest this is “the” moment; we glimpse mediated justice in the act of happening. Americans should look hard at this photograph because they will not see the product of this “view to a kill” (TIME’s caption). The White House has sealed away visual documentation of the executed terrorist and refused ever to disclose it. That surprised me at first—why not make proof of Bin Laden’s death definitive? Perhaps because it would only issue a new round of media icons that would be put to uses at home and abroad that the government could not control. But there is a visual economy at work here. Obama may prefer to have the image-memory of 9/11 prevail: rather than replace the carnage of the attacks with the grisly face of its dead cheerleader, what shall endure in the archive of the national imaginary will be the imagery affixed to memories and feelings of solidarity, solemnity, dedication, and common purpose. Obama touched this note directly in his remarks, remembering fondly what emerged from the dust in the days following the attacks: “let us think back to the sense of unity that prevailed on 9/11.”

The president’s message summarily punctuated a decade-long manhunt. The news came with a welcome sense of closure. Finally, the wait was over. Justice could not happen without the event he heralded at long last. Something dreadful and important had ended, and ended instantly. The speed of the operation in a suburb of Islamabad, on the other side of the world, was measured in minutes from touchdown to lift-off.

Getting the man is almost mythological. It rings with the justice of a classic Western movie. The plot originates with unrighteous violence: an outlaw kills an innocent victim. It’s the sort of thing memorably portrayed in Shane or Pale Rider: in a muddy main street the humble figure of a sheep farmer is confronted by a hired killer and gunned down in a shocking display of cruelty. Unarmed, unmarred by the culture of criminal violence that marks the outlaw, the sheep farmer is slaughtered publicly like one of his animals. The act prepares the way for retribution, and anything that conduces to this is justifiable. In the nomenclature of American public theology, it may be called righteous violence. Americans believe in this code, and they always have. The national gun culture is a direct expression of this enduring belief in the power of violence to do good. In this faith, timing is everything. Lightning speed wins the day. Good guys don’t have to think. They act, and they act promptly, from the instinct of virtue.

Obama confirmed that with his message, and thereby symbolically reversed the violation of American sovereignty that occurred on September 11. Those sudden acts of violence called for immediate retribution. But ten years ensued. So when Obama announced the death of Bin Laden, he was careful to provide a brief biography of events that motivated the strike, a narrative of just retribution, of righteous violence. His iteration of the images we no longer need to see immediately situated the act of American violence. The sense of affirmation that most Americans probably felt at the news was visceral. Osama bin Laden would have slaughtered any of us without wincing and known patently that he’d done the work of the Almighty.

Yet the cinematography of justice is bothersome precisely because it makes violence visible in a blurry pornography of infinitely repeated details. I am happy not to see Bin Laden’s exploded head because it would flicker on television, computer, and cell phone screens with the same frequency of the airplane vanishing into the side of the WTC tower or the horrifying images of people jumping into thin air. There are some things that we should forbid ourselves from looking at.

But as soon as I hear myself say that, I wonder what that act of iconoclasm might inadvertently conceal. Something like the ugly fact that nations stand in the blood they let. To be sure, war in some cases is unavoidable. Undeniably, violence can be used to preserve life. Bin Laden planned and was still planning to take American lives. Killing him was a justifiable act of self-defense. But there is a price to bear if we are going to kill those who would kill us. That price is the loss of innocence, and it is terribly visible in the broken soldiers who return to us a fragment of what they were before they left for war. We kill people and we will go on killing people. We send our soldiers to die for us and we kill our enemies and we unintentionally kill whoever happens to get in the way. We live in a paradox—we need violence to protect ourselves and we need to end violence to live without its terrible curse. There is no solution but to face the reality of our situation. We have to fight and we have to try to create a world in which politics and economics do not facilitate conflict, but work toward resolving it.

David Morgan is Professor of Religion with a secondary appointment in the Department of Art, Art History, and Visual Studies at Duke. He is the author of The Lure of Images: A History of Religion and Visual Media in America (Routledge, 2007), Visual Piety (University of California Press, 1998), Protestants and Pictures (Oxford, 1999), and The Sacred Gaze ( California, 2005). Morgan edited and contributed to Key Words in Religion, Media, and Culture (Routledge, 2008) and is co-founder and co-editor of the international scholarly journal, Material Religion, and co-editor of a book series at Routledge entitled “Religion, Media, and Culture.” His next book, The Embodied Eye: Religious Visual Culture and the Social Life of Feeling, will appear in 2012 from the University of California Press.

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