WE ARE TOLD that the current president of the United States watches a lot of television, just like the rest of us. Unlike the rest of us, in response to seeing footage of victims of a chemical weapons bombing in Khan Sheikhoun, Donald Trump launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles into Northern Syria. According to the Washington Post, the president was particularly moved by televised images of dead children. “Beautiful babies,” the president said in an address from Mar-a-Lago. “No child of God should ever suffer such horror.” (These are the same children of God, of course, he sought to ban from entry into the United States as refugees by executive order.) Trump came of age in the media era, just as we all have. The president’s staff has described him as a “visual and auditory learner” and requested that he be briefed primarily via images and charts. He apparently has a hard time with teleprompters and has said that he is too busy to read.
The impact of images on world politics has never been more potent. But Trump is not the first president to run on an isolationist platform who then found himself giving an order to intervene in a foreign war. Woodrow Wilson did the same in 1917. Perhaps both of these presidents, however widely divergent in temperament, did the right thing. Wilson deliberated for three years as thousands died in European trenches from the first use of poison gas in military history. Trump’s decision was, by comparison, an immediate reversal of position. The blowback from the choice to intervene in Syria will unfold inexorably in the months and years to come. What should concern us is how the decision to intervene was reached by our newly elected commander-in-chief.
Images of suffering and atrocity now have unparalleled access to our most intimate spaces. Most of us keep that connection open in our pockets or in the palm of our hands. Fifty years ago, when network television broadcast the Vietnam War into American homes, technology changed the way we perceived not only that conflict but also warfare in general. It no longer mattered that the violence was unfolding many miles and time zones away — we could expect updates on the nightly news. Vietnam was not the first time the public was emotionally whipsawed by images of the horrors of war; there were photos and even early film footage of gassed soldiers in the trenches of World War I. But what was once perceived frame by frame is now streaming byte by byte. Our response to these images is necessarily faster. We are more quickly moved to horror and disgust, and we more quickly forget, as an infinitely multiplying series of images demand our attention. We have to manage more information through images than ever before, and this makes our relationship to the compassion, rage, and sense of powerlessness aroused by these images ever more complex.
“Compassion is an unstable emotion,” Susan Sontag wrote in her final volume of essays, Regarding the Pain of Others, published in 2003. “It needs to be translated into action, or it withers.” This statement should make all of us uncomfortable. We live in an age when emotional responses drive what gets the most “hits,” and the click-bait stimulation of our emotional life is a valuable and measurable enterprise. What Sontag points out is that emotion is not to be trusted when it comes to deliberating right action. We may be repulsed, horrified, or moved by a photograph, but we cannot be trusted, driven by compassion alone, to arrive at understanding. We need to stop watching long enough to consider how we respond to images of suffering, pain, and atrocity, and must ruthlessly think about our own role as viewers historically and philosophically.
We are vulnerable to images just as we are vulnerable to propaganda. Our visceral experience of violent and disturbing images has changed not only because of the unprecedented speed of their transmission but also because there is no longer any mediation between these images and the viewer. Media outlets used to edit what images were permissible to share with the public. Now, if we have access to the technology, we can share directly with each other in real time. There is true political power in the removal of the mediator, but as there is more to respond to, there is proportionally more emotional instability.
Sontag wrote about the tension between compassion and action before the stream of images had grown to a deluge we could navigate with a click of our thumbs. But has our capacity for compassion shifted as a result? Is compassion really that unstable? And what is the relationship of compassion to action? Photographs are important to help us understand the horrors of war, but they are not enough. We typically have two ill-considered ways of responding to images of atrocity, according to Sontag: to act impulsively, as the president has, or, conversely, to numb ourselves to the feelings evoked by the sight of pain, suffering, and atrocity. But the urgent question remains: how do we — how should we — think about these pictures?
The day after Trump ordered the Syrian airstrike, a White House spokesperson claimed that the American president was responding “as a father and a grandfather.” This would not be enough for Sontag. In her book, she recounts the story of Leontius, son of Aglaion, from Plato’s Republic, who is so horrified by his morbid urge to gaze that he curses his own eyes:
On his way up from the Piraeus outside the north wall, he noticed the bodies of some criminals lying on the ground, with the executioner standing by them. He wanted to go and look at them, but at the same time he was disgusted and tried to turn away. He struggled for some time and covered his eyes, but at last the desire was too much for him. Opening his eyes wide, he ran up to the bodies and cried, “There you are, curse you, feast yourselves on this lovely sight.”
It’s a fable of human frailty. We know we shouldn’t look, we try not to look, we look, and then we are ashamed of giving in to that impulse. Think of the cars slowing down traffic for miles because of a terrible accident on the side of the road. As Sontag points out, “[T]he undertow of this despised impulse must also be taken into account when discussing the effect of atrocity pictures.” There can be a secret, perverse pleasure aroused by images of violence that is not solely based on the relief in knowing you are not the body in that steaming pile of metal in the breakdown lane. Sontag calls this “the pleasure of flinching.” But flinching is not, in the end, right action, and taking any action based on unmediated emotion shows a dangerous lack of reflection. Sontag is suspicious of unreflective compassion’s power to drive us to unconsidered actions — like launching missiles or dropping bombs. Leontius’s ultimate failure to shield his eyes is not simply an example of good or bad behavior, but of how complicated that behavior is.
During the Civil War, the first American war to be photographed, images of wartime dead were shown to the civilian population for the first time. The horror of seeing the faces of dead combatants came to be seen as morbid, disrespectful, and even unpatriotic. As Sontag notes, this led to the practice of shrouding the faces of the dead in photographs, a practice largely continued in the American press until coverage of the Vietnam War changed everything — just as cell phones have changed everything today. But hiding the face also abstracts the actual human being you are looking at. The image becomes what Sontag calls an “emblem of suffering.”
Think of the photo of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old refugee from Syria, washed up dead on the beach in Turkey after the rubber raft he and his family boarded overturned in September 2015. The child’s back is turned toward the camera, his position eerily familiar to anyone who has ever checked on a child sleeping in his crib. Or consider the case of Abdel Hameed Alyousef, the father whose photo cradling his two dead babies has become another emblem of suffering from the Syrian War. Alyousef asked his cousin to make a video of his journey to bury his children, wife, and other family members who had been killed in the chemical attack by President Assad. He may have chosen to document his experience of unimaginable horror and disseminate it through cyberspace because he knew that the world, like Leontius, would be unable to look away.
Sontag insists that we think about the difference between these two images of atrocity and our responses to them. If the Alan Kurdi photograph has become an “emblem of suffering,” the Alyousef burial video provides viewers with an unfolding narrative: this happened, then this, and, finally, this. Sontag asks, “Does shock have term limits? […] As one can become habituated to horror in real life, one can become habituated to the horror of certain images.” Narrative, according to Sontag, operates differently from still images. We can see the same play, opera, or movie, read the same book, and cry at the same moment every time. We may be returning to a particular narrative in part because of that desire. We want to cry. This enjoyment is a result of pathos, the taproot for empathy. But Sontag doesn’t use the word empathy — she prefers compassion, writing that “compassion, stretched to its limits, is going numb.”
How do we refuse numbness as the photos stream by? How do we move beyond the short-lived jolt of compassion that can leave us with an aftertaste of helplessness and spectacle? Images do not give us the whole story; they can be manipulated to elicit an array of responses that may or may not include compassion. But if these images are to have any impact, they must be pitiless. Sontag writes: “For photographs to accuse, and possibly alter conduct, they must shock.” Sontag would have understood Alyousef’s need to document and then dare the world to look away.
What, then, is the relationship of fear to compassion and numbness? Some of us, on some days, will not be Leontius. We will choose not to click on the video with the graphic images for a thousand reasons, perhaps one of which is that we are frightened by the world we have helped to create. “[F]ear (dread, terror) usually manages to swamp pity,” Sontag writes, but then adds: “Harrowing photographs do not inevitably lose their power to shock. But they are not much help if the task is to understand. Narratives make us understand.” This, then, is our task: to understand the sheer quantity of images and narratives of suffering and atrocity we are faced with every day, while keeping in mind the ways they are being framed for us.
It is easy to interpret the rise of Trump as the ultimate alchemy of politics and entertainment, with fact-based media under attack and the president governing 140 characters at a time. Yet Sontag challenged the idea that we are living in a society of spectacle, where “reality” has abdicated and the goal is to become media celebrities. This cynical embrace of the “Death of Reality” is, for Sontag, an example of “breathtaking provincialism […] of a part of a small, educated population living in the rich part of the world.” The sheltered, the affluent, the protected, can afford to click away from news sources, from the troubling aspects of the contemporary world they would prefer to ignore. Those actually experiencing the realities of deprivation and suffering do not have the option to change the channel.
In the case of Syria, Trump was moved by what he saw, and whether or not we think he made the right decision, we need to pay close attention to how he responded to his emotions. Sontag wants us to stop and examine our empathy with the dispassion of a surgeon — not only because we must seek right action but also because we cannot avoid our own complicity.
To set aside the sympathy we extend to others beset by war and murderous politics for a reflection on how our privileges are located on the same map as their suffering, and may — in ways we might prefer not to imagine — be linked to their suffering, as the wealth of some may imply the destitution of others, is a task for which the painful, stirring images supply only an initial spark.
If Sontag were still alive, I would risk her famous scorn to ask: Yes, but if we are moved, and reject cynicism, what then? Sontag includes a set of questions in her text, almost a primer on how to navigate the path from image to action:
Who caused what the picture shows?
Who is responsible?
Is it excusable?
Was it inevitable?
Is there some state of affairs which we have accepted up to now that ought to be challenged?
This short list can help us do our work. We cannot merely look. We must try to comprehend. But Sontag is not in the business of nurturing illusions about the complexity of what we are facing. As she writes, “[M]oral indignation, like compassion, cannot dictate a course of action.” That last thought should be presented to our current president as an infographic.
The cover of Regarding the Pain of Others features a detail from an etching by Goya, “Tampoco,” from his series The Disasters of War, showing a well-dressed, presumably wealthy man leaning back in a rural setting, gazing at a hanged man. In the full etching, there are two more makeshift gallows, indicating an infinite line stretching into the far distance. The living man is regarding the dead with fascination, not disgust — as one might, in fact, gaze upon this etching in a museum.
Goya created this series of etchings in 1810, from sketches he made during the Napoleonic Wars and the resulting famine. At the time, he was deaf, ill, and considered already an old man at 64. He died 18 years later, in 1828, without ever publishing this great series for fear of political reprisal. He may have been the first graphic war journalist. One of his etchings bears the terse title, “I saw it.” The title of the etching on the cover of Sontag’s collection translates roughly as, “Not this either” — a familiar feeling these days, when we click open the screens of our phones or computers. Sontag dares us to be more than witnesses. If compassion is a spark to be blown into action, it must be partnered with understanding.
Rebecca Chace is the author of the novels Leaving Rock Harbor (2010) and Capture the Flag (1999), and of the memoir Chautauqua Summer (1993). Her first book for children, June Sparrow and the Million Dollar Penny, was published by Harper Collins in May 2017.