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21 October 2011

Colonel Gaddafi, the trophy corpse

It's good to show the reality of war, but there's something unsettling about our delight in graphic

By Steven Baxter

The blood-soaked face of a still-warm corpse is the enduring image of the past 24 hours. That the face belonged to a vile tyrant is perhaps one reason why we’re not as squeamish about this particular death as we have been about others.

Almost all national newspapers today lead with the photo of a dead man’s head. Some crop out the smiling militiamen having their photo taken with the body of Muammar Gaddafi; some news channels have opted out of showing the most bloody footage of all. But the likelihood is that most of us with a passing interest in the news will have seen the corpse at some point. I began to feel a little sickened by its near-constant presence on my screens, and I’m not easily shocked.

As I wrote before about the death of Osama Bin Laden, we live in a ‘pics or it didn’t happen’ era, where we don’t trust the word of broadcasters and want to see for ourselves. The worldwide web has opened up a place where there aren’t the familiar boundaries and standards there used to be, where punters can readily access material that might once have been deemed unsuitable; and the historic importance of the Gaddafi photos and footage could be considered ample justification for the rather shocking nature of the sights we’ve seen. It is, after all, what happened.

In one sense, it’s good to show the reality of war. Our eyes are often shielded by news broadcasters during those times when ‘our boys’ get involved in scrapes overseas; the inevitable bloodshed doesn’t get transmitted at teatime for fear of upsetting children and adults alike. There are countless graphic images of charred corpses, dangling intestines and splintered scarlet skulls that we don’t get to see, which might make us shift on our settees a little and possibly bring home the graphic truth of what happens in the theatre of battle.

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Maybe we shouldn’t be shielded, and maybe we should be shown. This is, after all, what is happening at the behest of our elected politicians. Maybe we should see how our tax pounds are being spent with every shuddering cadaver oozing life by the roadside or twisted carnage of blood and bone that used to be human beings. It could be that we have a rather sanitised picture of war and its consequences, because we see the flag-draped coffins rather than the broken pieces of flesh inside.

Maybe every time politicians bask in the glory of their ‘tough decisions’ and ‘strong leadership’ with regards to successful military intervention, their words should play out over scenes of the lost lives – ‘our’ troops, as well as those killed by ‘our’ troops – who paid the biggest price of all. No looking away, no changing the channel; this is how things really are.

Are we ready for that? Well, we’re less sensitive than we used to be, in the days when other people used to decide what was too graphic to show us and what wasn’t, when the nanny broadcasters had to make choices for us. Now we can set our own boundaries of what’s acceptable and what isn’t. It’s all out there, on the net – videos of executions, suicides, car crashes, murders and assorted accidents, all in jerky pixellated shades of crimson; mortuary slab photos of the famous and infamous; ghoulishly detailed descriptions of death and dying to feed our morbid fascination.

But there’s another aspect to the Gaddafi story that doesn’t sit as easily with me as the other reasons why news outlets have been happy to splash the blood this time around. There’s something primeval almost, something rather unsettling, about the trophy-like nature of Gaddafi’s corpse, regardless of how horrific a human being he undoubtedly was, and regardless of the suffering and death he unleashed upon his subjects. Perhaps we are in danger of revelling in this violent act, in delighting in the grisly episode a little too much.

In a week when the Sun has been under fire, in parliament and elsewhere, for what it printed in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster, today’s front page also looks back in time, to 1988. THAT’S FOR LOCKERBIE, it roars, alongside the now familiar grainy still of Gaddafi’s bloodied and battered dead face. It wasn’t really for Lockerbie, of course; there are many more reasons why Gaddafi was killed by Libyans than that.

But there’s a sense in which the Sun, among many others, is enjoying the kill, sensing the bloodlust and tapping the same old jingoistic responses from its readers. You might cynically wonder if the same newspapers happily printing snuff photos will be pretending to clutch the pearls in a few days’ time, worried about children being exposed to sex on TV, or putting asterisks in words it doesn’t think its readers should see, for fear of the little lambs being corrupted. Ah, but that will be another day, another time.

There’s no doubting that the image of lifeless, humiliated Gaddafi is a powerful one – powerful enough to be used to further all kinds of agendas. Maybe it’s those agendas we should be more squeamish about. Dead bodies are just facts.

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