November 06, 2006

Photograph with the Enemy

University of Pennsylvania's president, Amy Gutmann, hosted a Halloween party at her home and was put upon to take a photo with a student dressed as a suicide bomber.  The student, Saad Saadi, wore camo pants, a package of fake dynamite strapped to his chest and carried a toy gun, which he used, according to the story, to stage mock executions around campus.  The photos are circulating through cyberspace on Facebook and have gotten president Gutmann in hot water.

Those of you who have read my book will immediately grasp the relevance of this story.  In a middle chapter of my book (which is excerpted at Killing the Buddha I write about attending a Halloween party and encountering an aquaintance--a guy I had a class with once--dressed as Charles Graner, so-called ringleader of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.  He wore rubber golves, glasses, had trimmed his mustache to approximate Graner's and carried a sandbag and a Polaroid camera.  (Check out the excerpt to see how the situation played out for me.)

Let me reflect on the U Penn situation via my own experience. 

First of all, it's important to point out that at the party I attended, now two years past, no one recognized the costume for what it was.  There was no discussion among the party-goers about the tastefulness of the costume.  There was no whispering behind his back or nervous laughter, at least that I saw.  Not that lack of  recognition on the part of party-goers absolves either Saad Saadi or Graner for their poor taste, BUT the root of the problem here is the photographic record of the decision--both the student's decision to wear the costume and president Gutmann's decision to allow her picture to be taken with him. Deciding whether or not a picture of the moment is worth making is an interesting moral conversation in and of itself. John Berger, in his essay "Understanding a Photograph" agrees that a photo, the actual thing itself, is a statement:
"I believe this moment is worth capturing." Therefore, a photo is a reflection of our moral vision.

BUT is it inherently immoral to take such a photo when it is clear that the intent is to create a memento, a conversation piece to show others? Unsure? Well, what about when it is probable that the photo will be widely disseminated to potentially millions of 18-22 year olds via Facebook, a faddish yet extensive online social network as integral to college lifestyle as a cell phone, IM screenname and wireless laptop? Now we're getting closer to the line, and closer to the reality of picture taking today. If you want to become infamous, just take a photo or a video of yourself doing something tasteless, idiotic, pornographic, or all three, and put it on your Facebook/MySpace account or YouTube. Within days your deed will have circled the globe several times over. But, again, is such behavior immoral?

The short and long answer is "No."

The photographs taken of Saad Saadi create moments that are meant to be seen as transgressive in that they resemble or mimics other images we have seen, images of actual militants brandishing weapons and actual executions. This similarity creates a moment of reckoning for the viewer, a moment where the awfulness of the original image is commented on by the reinactment. In the case of Saad Saadi's costume the suicide bomber is ridiculed, made to look like a fool now he is seen in the absurd context of a Halloween party standing next to the president of Penn, who is dressed a a princess, or fairy, or whatever she is sypposed be. The ultimate effect of scary costuming is thus achieved: All of a sudden the bogeyman isn't so scary anymore now that we've seen him for ourselves and we realize that he has no power over us.

Be this as it may, such an explanation does not negate the fact that many may be wounded by such images, especially the images that depict execution style killings, in particular the one in which Saadi appears to be reading the Koran (although it looks suspiciously like the green-covered New Testaments campus preachers distribute) while another party-goer kneels before him as though waiting to be shot. Clearly, the Islamic faith is being indicted. Saadi may honestly (however, naively) believe that he has not impugned Islam, but this reveals his ignorance of how religious people of all Abrahamic faiths feel about how they are represented in popular culture. This sensitivity toward religious peoples is rejected because of the perceived damage and destruction religion reaps--such a corrupt institution does not deserve reverence. But, again, Saadi would probably deny such a blatant attack.

A quick glance at Saad Saadi's website reveals the kind of intellect we're dealing with, an intellect that despite his Ivy-League pedigree is woefully common among young men these days. One link on his page takes you to YouTube and dozens of clips of an amateur "Fight Clubs," in which scrawny kids in boxing gloves try to beat one another up. Another link takes you to video footage Saad took himself. The majority feature him in different settings make masturbatory hand gestures.

With this in mind, it's difficult to give him any credit for putting together a "transgresssive" costume. He just desires to be contrary, which is irresponsible, though not immoral, given the current global climate.

What should be the punishment of idiocy and irresponsibility? Having being part of a similar situation--although I am not president of a university--I would say that these moments catch you by surprise. You want to believe that what you are doing has very little consequences. However, I found that the consequences were, for me, personal and caused me to reflect on my own complicity not just in this kind of Halloween shenanigans but how actual images of pain and suffering change us.

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