It’s hard to get your balance these days. Turn over a bucket, hop up on it, perch there precariously, look around as the cascade of chitinous black beetles surf in on surges of liquid shit. Pull up your pantlegs as the wave breaks around you and the brown spatters fly, squeak a bit, pray that the bugs (and the rats whose glowing eyes you see in the murk around you) don’t know how to climb.
Which is a melodramatic way to say that I don’t quite know what to say. Got some outrage? Get in line, sucker. Got something to say about rapin’ and torturin’, about beheadin’? So does every other Right Thinking Citizen, and by crikey, they’re making sure that those somethings are heard.
Let’s roll. Stay the course. Bring it on. Cut and run. Never forget. I’ll be back. Duck and cover.
Wait, that last one doesn’t fit in, does it? At least not yet.
It’s getting hard to stare unflinching into the actinic glare as the doors of hell swing open these days. The impulse, even after we’ve been bombarding ourselves with images like goatse and tubgirl and Daniel Pearl and Michael Jackson’s face, graveyard-joking all the while to show how tough and desensitized we are, is to turn away. To stop tattooing those horrible pictures on the sensitive cauliflower folds.
But each new iteration exerts its sick fascination, and the rays of doomlight — shining from Lynndie England and Nick Berg, from Madrid and Kabul — glitter over our mental horizons, lighting up the whole mediated clusterfuck as it whips itself into ever-bloodier froth. The tender-fleshed, bright-eyed Friends-consumers we were only show up in the quietest moments. Our shell-shocked outrage-fatigued palimpsest faces are hanging out in the wind, just like our asses. Can’t really make out the old stories of who we were on our faces anymore, and can’t make out the new stories either, scrawled in blood and filth, littered with copyright and trademark symbols and viagra ads and homemade porn and watermarked photos of piles of naked bodies.
Not piles of corpses. At least not yet.
The impulse is to turn away. But we tell ourselves that it’s weak and unworthy to avert our gaze. We’ve been told that it’s our ethical responsibility to bear witness, to see with eyes clear the evil that’s done in our names or otherwise, to understand and remember it, to prevent it ever happening again. Possibly at the risk of losing the chance to stop it, but pay that no never mind.
We love freedom. They hate freedom. We love liberty. God bless America. Down with the Great Satan.
We’re gonna shove democracy up their asses until they love us, just like Mike Tyson.
But not turning away can lead into an addictive room of mirrors. Bearing witness changes from a duty and a rite to a habit and a vice. The feed only gets notice when we unhook it, and we’re not fed the world by our umbilicals, we’re pulled further out of it. Schroedinger’s cat doesn’t die unless we see it happen, but if we’re watching it on video, it doesn’t really matter which way it goes. Kill ’em all and let god sort ’em out.
So we watch. We stagger from table to buffet table, dyspeptic and enervated, mildly turgid under our loosened belts. We snap and grin with our cams and camphones, and our photos are products that refer to themselves, not us. Our kaleidoscopic images proxy the world, and let us maintain the illusion that we aren’t really a part of it, and that the bad things are happening over there. That those chants and tribal signifiers that make us feel so good and so strong and so right actually mean something other than ‘go team’.
Smoke ’em out. Read my lips. No blood for oil. Support the troops. Rock the vote. Not in my name.
It becomes easier when everyone else is Them. We didn’t saw off poor Nick’s head, it was those scum, those vermin, the evil-doers, those others. We didn’t stick blunt objects up prisoners’ asses, either, or rape them or set dogs on them, we didn’t rip those kids apart with our amusingly-named ordinance. That was other people, a few bad apples, and they’re not us! We’re consumers of the images, don’t you see? We didn’t make this world! We didn’t maim that boy! It was them. Them! We didn’t slit Daniel Pearl’s throat, we didn’t knock over the gravestones, we didn’t fly airplanes into the World Trade Centre! We didn’t sell arms to Saddam, we didn’t sell arms to Iran, we didn’t ask for the double-anal pissporn, we didn’t do any of that shit. We are watchers. Watching makes it real, and watching keeps it separate from us. Watching is a noble act, at least until it gives you a hardon.
The basic truth gets obscured. What’s the difference between Osama bin Laden and George Bush? There isn’t one. What’s the difference between that fucker Amrozi who set the bomb that killed my friend Rick and me? There isn’t one. What’s the difference between the animals that sawed off Nick Berg’s head and the animals that beat prisoners to death at Abu Ghraib? There isn’t one. Between the Pope and Saddam? Between that old lady in front of the TV in a trailer in Alabama and that old lady digging up roots in a field in Kazakhstan?
We are one. We are all meat and electricity. And if there is more than that, we are all equally a part of that divine More. Or none of us are.
These ones go to 11.
I remember standing when I was maybe 14 in a circle of faces in the icy parking lot of the only arcade in town, out in front of what used to be Sonny’s hardware store. It was snowing, and I was in my shirtsleeves. Someone had yelled fight! and we’d all tumbled out past the steamed-up windows, out of the humid warmth into the snow. I can’t remember the names of the two combatants, but I can remember their faces. And I can remember the faces of the people watching. They were avid. Grinning. This was different from the clumsy, reluctant pecking-order school fights I’d seen (or been a part of) before. This was the real thing. One of the two was already down on the ice, on his back, eyes unfocused, by the time I took up a position on the outer edges of the ring of spectators. He was clearly finished. That didn’t matter, apparently. The victor hauled back his heavy winter boot and kicked the prone one in the head. I remember most clearly the sound, and the way that the head moved on the slack neck, and the colour of the blood on the ice. One kick, two, three, then someone at the front of the ring stepped in to stop the fun.
The look I saw on many of the bright tight faces was disappointment. That was the first of many fights I saw in my violent little hometown over the years, and the pattern was never different, except that in later years the fights were always fueled by alcohol. You go down, you get boot-fucked. It was a thing common enough that we had created a special name for it. Some people died, some needed reconstructive surgery, some were barred from entering the village limits. Being big and strong and stronger still of liver, and having good friends around at all times, I never got bootfucked. Being me, I never bootfucked anyone, though lord knows I there were times that I wanted to. In a legendarily violent town of 3000 people, you quickly understand the rules of retribution and revenge.
When I was in 17, I read Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. It hurt. It put images in my head that I didn’t want in there, that are still in there more than 20 years later, and I hated him for it. The abstraction of brutality, the matter-of-fact articling of such utterly transgressive violence twisted my melon and started me wondering where it might lead.
Well, now we know.
Even back then, even as a callow teen, I defended his right to have written it, though I was inclined to want to punch him in the face for having done so, were I ever to meet him. Growing up media-starved (and smart, drunk and angry) in a town where you could choose between two CanCon television channels, where there was no movie theatre, no bookstore, only a tiny library and not even the dream that such a thing as the internet might ever exist, it was a rapid education I received in those three years between my freshman witnessing of my first bootfucking and the graduation ceremony of reading Ellis’s deadpan fantasia of dismemberment and death. The first lessons stay with you the longest.
Today I can find movies and photos and paintings and stories of the same and worse, three clicks away, without even breaking a sweat. And as often as not, these things really happened.
My impulse to turn away usually wins out these days. This may be the wrong thing to do. When a puppy shits on the floor, we rub his nose in it (or at least we used to, in less kind, gentle days) for a reason.
But I guess I realized at some point that there is something I can do about a man who starts a war, perhaps, but there is little I can do about a man who kills and dismembers another person, unless that person is me. And there’s still less I can do about a man who aquires money or fame writing about it.
Or, you know, a woman.
I also realized somewhere down the road that whether it’s fiction or photo, documentary or gore-flick, fake or genuine, no representation of violence is anything like the real thing. Our frisson of revulsion, our predictable and pointless anger at the perpetrator, our self-serving hollow vows of ‘never again’, our demonization of the other who would so transgress those ethical standards we hold out as self-evident, our self-congratulatory conviction that we‘d never do anything like that, and our complacence in the face of the indisputable fact that everyone, everywhere seems to be doing it anyway…. well, what are you going to do? Cheer the killer monkeys on? “We are nihilists, Lebowski. We believe in nothink!” Been there, done that, and it’s a dead end too.
I haven’t got any answers. But I am pretty sure that regardless of whether you have nightmares about the Texas Chainsaw Massacre (or the Jesus Chainsaw Massacre) or the horrors of Abu Ghraib, no matter how accurately and horribly that fact or fiction is captured and portrayed for you, these things are to the real experience of violence as American beer is to the real thing. fucking close to water.
No wait. I mean – ‘a weak approximation’.
But the killer monkeys just won’t stop. And sometimes, you just have to turn away, all the while realizing that if you haven’t got the stomach for the imagery, you would be destroyed by the reality.