Taste, Censorship and Morality

On Wednesday, the Bangkok Post carried a front page photograph of an alleged Iranian terrorist who, in a mishap, had ended up blowing both of his own legs off. It was a gruesome and bloody picture, and a controversial decision to put it on the front page. But it was the right decision.

And it reminded me of a photograph in the Singapore Straits Times that I had seen a few weeks earlier in a hotel in Shan State, Myanmar, where I was on a work assignment. Carried on an inside page, the rather startling photograph showed the body of a young man who had been found unconscious and blood-stained on the floor of an underground passageway.

His name was not given, nor was it revealed whether he survived. Indeed, there was relatively little text. The photograph was the attention-grabber.

Just a day before this, I had read in the International Herald Tribune a story about a video of the beheading of two men in Indonesia’s South Sumatra Province. The killings on the video, which was shown to a parliamentary human rights commission, were reportedly carried out by security forces hired to protect a palm oil plantation.

The reports immediately made me think of two other incidents involving photographs or videos of tragic deaths – and the question of whether they should be published or not.

The first occurred in Phnom Penh just over a year ago, when a young woman, Jessica Claire Thompson, a journalist on The Cambodia Daily, was found dead of an apparent drug overdose.

While the details surrounding the tragedy quickly became well known to other journalists, there was a tacit agreement not to publicize it in order to protect the feelings of a fellow member of the profession and of the other three journalists who were with Thompson at the time. Consequently, aside from a few brief lines, no details of Thompson’s demise, nor photographs of her corpse, were published in the English-language press in Cambodia.

Conversely, the second case, which occurred a decade ago and was far more grisly, was fully covered in a proper professional manner by the media. It involved the infamous incident, later to form the basis for a movie, when Daniel Pearl, a Wall Street Journal correspondent, was kidnapped and decapitated by terrorists in Karachi, Pakistan.

All of America’s print media and television stations reported the story in detail, because it was of great public interest. They did not hold back because it involved a member of the profession.

The Boston Phoenix newspaper even published a photograph of Pearl’s severed head – and some sensitive souls misguidedly chastised it for doing this. But the photograph appeared with an editorial defending the paper’s move and the provision of a link on its website to a video of Pearl’s execution. The Phoenix publisher said his decision to carry the picture “came from my gut, from my brain, from my heart.” He claimed it was no different to other publications running similar pictures in the past.

He referred to photographs of a dead American soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, to an alleged Viet Cong man being shot in the head, and to a baby’s corpse being carried out of the bombed Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

Of these earlier examples, perhaps the most well-known, and still the most shocking, is that of the execution of a Viet Cong suspect in Saigon (as Ho Chi Minh City was then called). It happened on February 1, 1968, just before Tet, the Vietnamese lunar New Year. At that time, a VC offensive had split the city’s defences and reached the gates of the United States Embassy.

Eddie Adams, an Associated Press photographer, went out with a colleague to check on reports of fighting in Saigon’s Chinatown area of Cholon. They encountered some soldiers who had nabbed an alleged VC infiltrator. The man, dressed in boxers and a casual check shirt, had his arms tied behind his back.

Lt.-Col. Nguyen Loan, the police chief of South Vietnam, suddenly appeared, took out a pistol and pointed it at the man’s head.

“I had no idea he would shoot,” said Adams.

But Loan did shoot — and Adams clicked his camera. A second later, the suspect slumped to the ground, blood gushing from his head. The picture was a sensation. It horrified people around the world and galvanized the anti-war movement.

No one argued that it should not be published. In fact, it was constantly reprinted and enlarged, even appearing on placards across the country. Yet it shows a Vietnamese man being callously murdered. A man whose family, like that of Pearl, would recognize him and be distraught at the image of his violent demise.

Of course, he was seen as a yellow Asian Communist, not a white Jewish American. Pictures of Pearl’s head are unlikely to appear on placards across the US, nor are those of Jessica Thompson and her three young colleagues likely to appear on anti-drug placards in Cambodia.

The second photo mentioned by the Phoenix editors was taken on October 4, 1993, by Paul Watson, working for Canada’s Star newspaper. He was one the few journalists still in Somalia when American Marines, attempting to quell Mogadishu’s feuding warlords, got trapped in a skirmish after two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down.

The body of one American soldier killed in the firefight was later dragged around the streets by Somali gunmen. Watson took pictures of it. The soldier’s dusty, mutilated corpse is naked except for his military underpants. A local woman is prodding the body with her foot, another is poised to whack it with a sheet of tin roofing.

There was a massive outcry when this picture was published. For though the soldier was not identified, he was an all-American boy, not some skinny Vietnamese peasant.

The final picture recalled by the Phoenix newspaper was shot by Charles Porter, again of AP, on April 19, 1995.

That was when white American terrorists blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Porter’s photograph shows a firefighter cradling the corpse of a bloody, dirt-covered baby. It tugs the heart strings, but unlike the Vietnam and Somalia photos, it does not capture man’s inhumanity to man.

“The horror, the horror,” as Kurtz puts it, in Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’.

The picture of Pearl’s head captures that horror. That is why it was right to publish it. So, too, does the bloody legless terrorist in Bangkok last week and the gruesome beheading video taken in Indonesia. And so, in a different way, does the photograph of Thompson’s body illustrate the horrors consequent upon wanton drug use by misguided youth. But let’s be brutally honest and admit that there is another consideration.

We get a vicarious pleasure from viewing such pictures. We want to see them and we watch videos and buy publications that carry them. So please don’t give me a lot of thees, thous and thems about good taste, morality and the right to privacy. It’s just hypocritical hogwash.

The Phoenix and the other papers, including the Straits Times, got their picture and ran with it. Well done. Aside from boosting their profile, they enable us to confront the horror. That we must do, if we are to keep it at bay. Otherwise, in the end, it will consume us all.