While gruesome images of Gaddafi’s bloody corpse hit the headlines here, in Libya, people were queuing to see his body, largely in order to ascertain for themselves, that the tyrant who ruled for so long, was indeed gone for good. The choice to print graphic close up images, or play on loop the final moments of a seriously injured man in the hands of an understandably angry mob, was shocking to many, not least those of us who had to explain the images to young children. But rituals of death also tell us a lot about the living. So what does our portrayal of Gaddafi’s death say about us?
Some of the most explicit and disturbing images of Gaddafi’s slumped body seem to play to our base desire for retribution and punishment, transforming our media networks into modern day coliseums, where morbid fascinations are given free rein, the sobriety of death sacrificed at the altar of ratings or high print runs.
There were undeniably serious journalistic challenges to covering Gaddafi’s demise, as the BBC’s editors’ decision to dedicate a post to the topic testifies. Specifically, were graphic images an essential part of telling the story or were they merely victory porn, dehumanizing both the watcher and the watched through a desensitazation to images which should otherwise be deeply distressing and disturbing? Are we revelling in the death of our enemies, the Bin Ladens and Anwar al Awlakis, in our very own rituals of atonement, where human sacrifice is still the ultimate price to be paid for ‘evil’?
Gaddafi’s death, like Bin Laden’s or al Awlaki’s raises significant questions over the appropriateness of extra judicial killings, due process and the human rights of war criminals – but what about basic human dignity? To be convinced that Gaddafi or anyone else should be afforded this, is in no measure an apology for their actions, but surely a marker of unfailing commitment to the very values which underpin our society.
The ethics of journalism have surely been tested by the latest technology which means we have access through camera phones to a dying man’s final seconds. The real question such footage poses is, whether the choice to air it is guided by journalistic concerns or profit margins. And more broadly, whether we don’t demean our own humanity, by the gratuitous parading of bodies like war trophies.
Ultimately, it is how we deal with people in death, as in life, which defines our commitment to human dignity.
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