05/07/2012 01:46 pm ET Updated Jul 07, 2012

Images That Do Violence

The Los Angeles Times exposé a couple weeks ago offers chilling testimony of how badly sentiments and moral judgments can slide out of kilter in time of war, or really any time when a sensitive person feels under siege and under threat. The newspaper printed two out of a collection of 18 images that were sent anonymously by a soldier currently serving in Afghanistan, one who expressed concern about the breakdown in civility and in authority structures in this unit, the storied 82nd Airborne Division of the U.S. Army.

The two images were ghastly: in one, US soldiers posed mockingly with the severed legs of a person alleged to have been a suicide bomber; in a second, a young soldier posed smiling with a severed human hand resting casually on his shoulder. The remaining images were allegedly more disturbing still, and were not released.

At the risk of appearing macabre or insensitive, I would like to meditate briefly on those two images, and on what it is that makes these images so disturbing. This seems different, somehow, from the previous images with which the U.S. military has been besieged, images that seem to suggest a more pervasive culture of dehumanization than we are prepared to admit into our public pronouncements about the justice of our cause.

The U.S. Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, contented himself with the (altogether genuine, I am sure) public statement that the soldiers who engaged in these photographic games did not represent our cultural values, nor the way in which we wish to represent our moral standing to the world. (I use the past tense, not to distance myself from these images, but rather because it is important to recall that these photographs were allegedly taken two years ago).

The photographic images from the Abu Ghraib facility in Iraq were disturbing in part because we were witnessing soldiers proudly posing and smiling for a camera that documented their outrageous assaults on human dignity and the dehumanizing rituals to which they subjected the detainees subject to their authority. In the case of the more recent photographic images of U.S. soldiers urinating on alleged Taliban corpses, the same worry presented itself: here were U.S. soldiers engaging in what amounted virtually to an imagistic assault, bragging about their dehumanizing treatment of the enemy. I wish to highlight one subtle point that connects these two sets of images. It did not matter particularly that the first group of detainees were alive, whereas the second group of victims were not.

Now, in this latest set of images, body parts are placed on mocking display. And yet the moral intuition remains the same: this simply is not an acceptable thing to do to a human body, alive or dead, in whole or in pieces. Mutilating the enemy corpse, an idea as old as the Iliad, is always presented there as a reprehensible act of overreach, normally one with dire and fairly immediate consequences.

Some readers may differ with this assessment by noting why these particular body parts appear as they do, how they came to be severed in the first place. These are alleged to be the remains of suicide bombers, human beings who intentionally blew their own bodies up in full knowledge that something like this would be the result. Is it wrong in the same way, then, to photograph such severed arms and legs? Hasn't photography, and especially war photography, always had a macabre relationship to death and the corpse, much as Susan Sontag famously argued in the 1970s?

Isn't the crucial moral difference in play here the absolute difference between the sympathetic and the mocking depiction of the dead?

Yes and no. The photographic images of mutilated corpses from Civil War battlefields that Matthew Brady made popular have come under increasing criticism, especially when Sontag and others demonstrated how many of these photographs were staged, produced by moving corpses around, by placing them in dramatic places, and by placing them in dramatic postures very different from where they had been found. In this sense, placing the dead on voyeuristic display, a form of display that is intentionally manipulated and misleading, seems wrong in every case.

There are things, many things, that you simply ought never do to a human corpse. You oughtn't move it around unnecessarily, or pose it or pose with it, thereby turning it into an object vulnerable to your own whims, however ethical and well-intentioned you may believe those whims to be.

The dead body possesses an intuitive sacrality that is supposed to keep it protected from precisely such abuse. That's the key: These images are abusive images, every bit as abusive as the ones from Abu Ghraib. The fact that the human being so photographed is dead rather than alive, or mutilated rather than intact, is not an ethically significant distinction.

Now I wish to take a slight and surprising detour, one that is not intended to make a strong argument so much as it is intended to suggest a new way of seeing. My suggestion is certainly not intended to offend, though I recognize that it may.

I have been confronted many times with photographs of aborted fetuses at a variety of "pro-life" rallies and protests. Sometimes these fetuses are depicted whole, and sometimes in pieces. Given what I have just said about these war photographs, I would like to suggest that the decision to use such photographs, and to display them in a very public way intended to manipulate an audience's emotions for political effect, ironically confirms the intuitive perception that there is something different about an unborn fetus and a physically self-sustaining human being. I do not think the person who opts to carry such an image on a poster to a rally would be so cavalier and self-certain in carrying the photograph of a human corpse in the same way.

The glaring Christian exception to what I have just said is the iconic depiction of Christ's torture, crucifixion and entombment. Christian art, much of it at any rate, has been obsessively consumed with the repetitive manipulation of a relatively small repertoire of forms, all of them bloody and violent. And yet here again, it is Christ's body that is so depicted, not the broken body of an anonymous Roman criminal. "Fully God and fully man"; it is this Incarnational idea that makes Christ's body unlike any other body. And so his pain and torture are depicted continuously, in a way that marks not just how different Christ's salvific suffering is from other human beings' suffering, but also how very different his body is from any other human body. Christ's dead body so depicted, has a completely different, and highly symbolic, meaning than the photographs from the Los Angeles Times which are entirely and nauseatingly literal.

These perceptions, subtle and so very largely intuitive, nonetheless seem to me to offer a possible new point of entry into a very old and very tiresome and very tiring debate about the moral status of the unborn fetus and the vexed question of when life beings.

It seems descriptively accurate to suggest that we intuitively engage the fetus and the corpse in different ways, that we assign them to different places in our moral affections and that they possess different emotional registers. We do not, by and large, bury them the same way either, though I recognize that there are some notable exceptions to this general observation.

It is a simple point, but one worthy of more careful reflection. As we strive to acknowledge the humanity of a military enemy, even one who intends us grave harm, we are responding to an intuition about human value that is independent of the particular human being in question, and whether he or she is alive or dead.

As we strive to articulate our responsibilities to the unborn fetus, a slightly different intuition about value, and a slightly different perception of the place such a being occupies in terms of the species membership we rightly are concerned to acknowledge and protect. Is this difference -- a difference that does not reduce the unborn fetus to an inert thing, but does not elevate it to the status of a person who has died -- one that well-meaning representatives of the many different sides of the debate about abortion might use to provide a new and slightly different point of entry into one of the most recurrent moral debates of our time?