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.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Showcasing the death of a Rio drug lord

Last Sunday, the most wanted drug kingpin in Rio de Janeiro, Erismar Rodrigues Moreira (known as "Bem Ti-Vi"), was fatally shot by police officers during a massive law enforcement operation in Rochina, the largest favela (slum) in Latin America and the kingdom over which Bem Ti-Vi ruled.

Once it was confirmed that Bem Ti-Vi was dead, the police officers involved in the operation publicly celebrated, smiling, hugging and "high-five-ing" each other in front of cameras. And all of the city's newspapers, including its most responsible and serious, O Globo, the following day published gruesome photographs of the bloodied, bullet-ridden corpse of Bem Ti-Vi being unceremoniously hauled off by a celebratory, smiling police force.

Neither these public celebrations by the police nor the publication of these gruesome photographs would ever be permitted in the United States. The former would be roundly and harshly condemned while the latter would simply be suppressed by a self-censoring media.

And yet both the police celebrations and these graphic photographs play vitally important roles in having the public understand, process, and react to consequential events such as these.

The photographs of Bem Ti-Vi's bloody corpse and the wreckage caused by the police shoot-out were indispensable in telling Rio residents the real story of what occurred: the violent, deadly confrontation which is standard fare in the city's favelas; the mortal dangers faced by severely under-paid police officers in areas which are often more dangerous than active war zones; and the numbingly common violence which ends the lives of a large percentage of the city's impoverished male youth. The photographs tell these stories in a way that mere words cannot.

And the photographs achieve other equally important purposes as well: providing Rio residents with confirmation that this shadowy, violent figure was really dead; enabling a sense of communal satisfaction and even collective vengeance that a vicious criminal met his deserved, unglorious fate; and serving as a warning to other would-be replacements of Bem Ti-Vi of the fate which likely awaits them if they pursue the same path.

Contrast these revealing photographs with what would surely be the American media's version of this event -- sanitized, obfuscating, and filled with euphemisms. Readers of American newspapers would be deprived of the most graphic (i.e., most realistic) photographic depictions of these events. They would be denied -- by the very institutions responsible for informing them --access to the photographic evidence of death and violence which characterize this story at its core. The news organizations' paternalistic self-censorship would deem its readers too fragile and effete to be able to withstand the reality of what occurred, and would, therefore, instead feed them a version cleansed of the most graphic and compelling images and thus, by definition, cleansed of reality.

It is this repressive and information-hiding mindset which results in Americans being less than fully informed of the reality of the world's evils -- from the depraved inhumanity of terrorists to the indescribably gruesome realities of wars.

Again and again, Americans are denied the ability to be fully informed and to view images of what actually occurred by virtue of the belief that the media knows best what is good for its readers and has the mandate of protecting, rather than informing, them. We don't see photographs of beheaded Christian girls in Indonesia or the charred bodies of tourists blown up in Bali; nor do we see the corpses of American soldiers or Iraqi civilians killed by the war; nor the mangled, bloodied, all-too-human-looking fetuses which are aborted by the millions each year; nor the electrified corpses of the murderers whom we empower the State to execute nor the bloodied pulps of those murderers’ victims.

The American media always has truth-revealing images to show of all of these events, but it hides all of this from us through its systematic self-censorship because it has decided that it's better for us if we don't see it. As a result, Americans maintain only a sanitized, distant and entirely abstract understanding of what ought to be vividly recognized realities.

The favelas of Rio de Janeiro are sprawling bastions of poverty, violence and anarchy. The city's police force enters them only to engage in deadly shoot-outs with the better-armed organized gangs of violent drug dealers who assert unchallenged rule over the favelas.

In virtually each of these militarized confrontations between the police and the drug lords, it is not only the officers and gang members who are shot, but innocent favela residents (often children), too, routinely killed by stray bullets recklessly sprayed by one side or the other.

Residents of Rio are well-aware of the heinous realities in their city's favelas because their media tells them about it and shows it to them. They are exposed to all photographic images regardless of the extremity of their content. As ugly and unpleasant though they might be, the realities which take place throughout their city are conveyed, rather than concealed, by a media fulfilling its mandate to inform them.

Americans are forced, by virtue of their nation’s unchallenged military power and its standing in the world, to make decisions which are uniquely consequential. And yet, as a result of the self-censorship of their media, they are often deprived of access to unvarnished realities, and thus must make these decisions in the dark, bestowed with only the most abstract and therefore incomplete understanding of those things which -- whether revealed or concealed -- they are forced to confront.

The media’s principal mandate is to inform, to tell, and to show -- not just those things which it deems its readers sufficiently strong to withstand, but all matters of significance. A media which withholds revealing information, including photographic images, of critically important events is a media which, by definition, is failing to fulfill its principal function of informing.

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