Three videos premiered on the internet this past week, all horrible and shocking in their own way and each garnering different degrees of the public’s attention. I must admit right from the start that I have not watched these videos with my own eyes. I rarely if ever watch the youtube displays of atrocity that happen to hit the news cycle. I know that these videos contain images and realities that can awaken consciousness and spark riots, but there is also something about pressing play that makes me feel so uncomfortable I end up turning to the text description instead.
However, for those who are not prone to read written news reports and analysis, videos that seem to distill a complex situation– such as century-long class relations and imperialism– into a shaky minute-long video clips can be the one entry point into a dark, dark world.
The video of U.S. Marines urinating on the dead bodies of Taliban fighters is by far the most controversial of the past week in terms of foreign relations impact and amount of official statements. Government and military officials, such as Hilary Clinton and Leon Panetta, made their obligatory remarks about disgust and accountability and bastardization of the true American way. But as usual nobody talked about the larger questions such as who were these dead men exactly and in what sort of engagement had they been killed? It is there in the unspoken questions that I begin to feel critical of the web video as a political phenomenon. These videos create a graphic political spectacle around which all the major players must contribute a few lines for dramatic effect while behind the scenes the machinations that led us to this endless war remain intact and untouched.
One of the more asinine statements about the video came from Florida Republican representative Allen West who said that those who haven’t been shot at by the Taliban should “shut up” about the Marine’s actions. This argument relies on the assumption that war changes people and makes them more prone to barbaric behavior in a way that cannot be understood by civilians. Though I think West’s statement is a ridiculous excuse for inexcusable behavior, I do think he is inadvertently pointing to the larger issue of how sanctioned violence within a larger organization grants people the right to do terrible things. In a similar way I fear that people’s attraction to displays of war crimes, sanctioned by the media circus surrounding the scandal, desensitizes them to seeing the larger system that makes the war crimes possible.
The other two video scandals in the news this past week captured my attention because of the involvement of indigenous people. One was taken in Mexico and shows an older light-skinned executive thrashing the doorman of his building before calling him a f****ing indio (Indian). Hugo Enrique Vega who came forward as the victim said he chose not to defend himself from fear of losing his job. This video is apparently the third instance of Mexico’s upperclass exposing their racist, classist prejudices on the internet. The fact that this video is part of a series makes it, I think, more powerful than a one-off scandal starter. This video (which will also help the Vega bring his legal case against the jerk who beat him up) may actually help expand a conversation about wealth disparity instead of enclosing it around a single incident. The Afghanistan video has offhandedly been compared to the Abu Ghraib photos and the Afghanistan kill team controversy but I don’t think it has reached the same level of a serious national conversation, being too quickly categorized as an aberration than an integral characteristic of American military culture.
The next video, and most horrific in my mind, was shot on the Andaman Islands of India. It appears to show several women from the Jarawa tribe dancing under orders from a police officer. The incident has caused some embarrassment for (but little change within) the Indian government, as tourist contact with the Jarawa is banned. Not only is the practice of human safari a degrading practice of racial elitism, it is also very dangerous for the Jarawa, who as an isolated people are very susceptible to diseases outsiders can carry in.
It has come up in the many reports surrounding the scandal that the video may be as many as seven years old. This highlights another issue with video technology, which is really just the issue with. The popularity of internet videos and their ability to attract hours of news time relies on people’s prejudice towards audiovisual information. However, as the debate around the timestamp of the Andaman Islands footage shows, there is still a lot of uncertainty and room for debate about the facts—even if they are laid out in a stark video recording. I don’t mean to detract from the seriousness of the abuse towards tribal people shown in the video. I merely mean to highlight that it is dangerous to rely only on videos, especially those that are out of context or that cannot be verified, for our social justice movements. Otherwise I fear we fall into a sensationalist based model that relies on the exhibition of suffering that almost works to glorify the most horrible and graphic examples of injustice in the world as the most newsworthy stories.
As cynical as it may sound, though I may have been initially shocked by the descriptions of these videos, I was not particularly surprised. Wealthy, European-descendents being violent racist jerks? American soldiers defacing Arab enemies of the state? Tribal people reduced to state enforced sideshow status? These injustices are not new. They deserve to be in the news much more often than they are and in more rigorous manner than a video scandal.
These videos came at the end of a year that saw once again a huge increase in mobile recording technology not only in terms of more sophisticated (i.e. smaller) devices but also in terms of the sheer number of people who have the ability to operate them. At the Occupy Wall St encampment in Zucchotti Park, there was a sea of amateur journalists constantly recording everything that happened from drum circles and spontaneous marches to General Assemblies and soap box rant sessions. Many of these recordings could be seen in real time via the internet. While the presence of cameras helped to document instances of police brutality (and mobilize large numbers of sympathizers), it also created a hyperreal revolution which people could participate in without actually getting dressed and taking to the streets.
In the end, what bothers me is that it takes these videos, often disturbing and graphic, to spark a conversation. We don’t believe in the ugliness unless we see it on the internet first. And though video technology is becoming more pervasive, there are still a lot of places, and a lot of horrible events, that don’t happen in front of a camera. Will we overlook them in for the video scandal of the week?