I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

The media should stop withholding gruesome photographs of terrorism

Last week, I wrote a post regarding the refusal of American media outlets to publish graphic photographs of violent events (on the grounds of "good taste"), and contrasted that approach with the practice of even the most serious and respected newspapers here in Brazil, which routinely publish photographs that are shocking, and even gruesome, when doing so is necessary to convey the horrendous, violent reality of what occurred.

As I argued, the suppression of such photos has the effect of sanitizing and rendering abstract even the most extreme violence and horrors. Whether it be the pure evil of terrorists slaughtering, blowing up and beheading innocent people; the devastation wrought by war; or the bloody, gruesome human destruction caused by abortion or violent crime, graphic photographs convey reality in a way that mere words cannot. As a result, American newspapers do a grave disservice to their readers by suppressing such photos, while international media (such as those here in Brazil) do a far better job of informing their readers and reporting on such events by disclosing, rather than concealing, newsworthy photographs no matter how extreme and unpleasant.

The revolting terrorist attacks yesterday in Amman, Jordan and the resulting media coverage of that event, illustrate this point perfectly. One can read the words describing the slaughter of innocent people sitting in their hotel rooms or in a business meeting or at a wedding, and easily evade the truth and visceral horror of what occurred. With mere words, it is much easier to simply avoid ingesting the true magnitude of the evil and human destruction wrought by Islamic terrorists, and simply breeze past it, blithely continuing to block out the severity and uniqueness of the threat which terrorism poses.

But the photographs which readers of Brazilian newspapers woke up to this morning regarding these attacks – including on the front page – do not allow anyone to avoid the horrors of what took place. The photographs are gruesome, revolting and jarring – and they ought to be, because that is what terrorists do, it is what they are, and we ought to know and feel that truth. A substantial reason for the widespread and increasing complacency towards terrorism, which continues to threaten every aspect of the civilized world, is that people are too easily able to avoid its reality, because the media enables that avoidance by suppressing images of what is going on.

These are the photographs of the work of Islamic terrorists in Jordan which Brazilians, but not Americans, woke up to this morning in their newspapers. The first photograph was in the middle of the front page of O Globo, where it belongs, but in an much more close-up version, where one could really see the faces and everyday clothing of the international tourists and businessmen who were pursuing common activities when their lives were randomly exterminated:

Photographs like these should be on the front page of The New York Times, shown on network news programs, published in all newspapers. This is the menance that Americans are forced to confront, whether they want to or not.

UPDATE: For another example of the incomparable value of graphic photographs in understanding certain news events, see this post at Needlenose concerning reports of the use of white phosphorus by the U.S. military in its Fallujah offensive. Controversy exists over the accuracy of these reports, but surely the photographs -- which would never be published by U.S. media sources -- constitute important (or at least relevant) evidence to consider for anyone who wants the truth of what took place there, as well as important testimony to the human costs of the war.

Similarly, the undeniably stomach-turning photographs of the three school-aged Christian girls slaughtered and then beheaded by Muslims in Indonesia convey the utter depravity of the Western World's enemies with a visceral potency that mere words can never achieve.

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