Yesterday I wrote about images detailing death and destruction, and expressions of concern in media about the effects of transmitting such images. There was a discussion of the same topic on last night’s Tonight with Vincent Browne, presented by Dearbhail McDonald. Journalist Colette Browne said that whereas broadcasters have to abide by certain codes, the dissemination of such images, by people whose governments are involved in supplying aid to Israel and sign arms deals with Israel, allows them to get some sense of the grisly reality endured by Palestinians. I agree with this. But there is another kind of image worth thinking about here: images devoid of any direct representation of suffering or mutilation or death.
There are frequent arguments against continuous exposure to images of pain and suffering: they desensitise people; they might make people reel in horror, but they don’t engage them politically, they don’t make them more inclined to act. I think these arguments can be justified under certain conditions. But what about images that banalise or trivialise or stage a false dramatisation of violent events?
Here is an image produced by the Israel Defense Forces, circulated widely online.
Here is another.
Obviously, these are military propaganda images. They are intended to produce certain effects in the way people think and respond: hearts and minds, as the military expression has it. (cf. ‘Israel is not only winning the war in Gaza but the hearts and minds of Americans.’, in Israel’s Winning Hearts And Minds, The Jewish Week, 23 July 2014).
What kind of effect might be sought from such an image? First of all, ‘winning hearts and minds’ has little to do with winning people over to your point of view with sweet reasonableness, or truth-telling, or logic. It just means using whatever is most effective in making people respond in ways that help meet your strategic objectives. If that means lying, well and good.
In the case of these particular images, there are a whole range of suggested messages, calculated to obtain a set of effects. Missiles are being launched at a capital city. Big Ben and the Eiffel Tower are national symbols, hence the rockets being launched at these symbols are intended to suggest national destruction. What would you do? The suggestion is that Israel is a Western sovereign state like Britain or France. Hence the beholder is called upon to imagine what he or she would do if Britain or France were subjected to a war of national obliteration. Identify with Israel, not whoever the faceless entity is firing the rockets.
What kind of viewer does the image designer have in mind? It is unlikely to be a random person. Certain segments of society may have been identified for particular attention. The image designer may be drawing on research on particular tendencies among particular groups of people, for example, British nationalists and French nationalists, people who already feel as though they are under threat from forces that never show their faces. So the image becomes a call to such people’s sense of chauvinism -and their sense of eroded colonial authority and racial superiority- to agitate in favour of Israel. The images are reminiscent of Armageddon scenes from Hollywood movies: another intimation of Israel’s sameness, its shared culture, in contrast to those who would destroy all this.
Such images also seem to have taken into account the arguments over international and humanitarian law, proportionality, discrimination, historical right and wrong that regularly come to the fore when Israel unleashes one of its military offensives. Fuck that – there’s a war on! The viewer of the image is called upon to imagine a state of exception, in which normal considerations do not apply because the very ground upon which considerations rest -political and legal institutions, humane culture, historical memory- are subject to an existential threat from outside. One can imagine Charlie Flanagan or someone else looking upon such an image, then saying, but of course Israel as a democratic State has the right to defend itself! These images, then, can provide ideological materiel in order to allow Israel to act unrestrained by public opinion.
Evidently, any suggestion that Israel’s opponents are human beings is deliberately left out of the picture. In such scenes of Hollywood Armageddon (the images also resemble video game covers), the only option is complete annihilation of the enemy (but since this is like a movie or a video game, it never really happens…). Through these images, Israel invites us to identify with the sovereign power that takes it upon itself to decide those groups to be preserved, and those to be exterminated.