Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Picture of the Condemned

For anyone who has read as much Foucault as I have, the debate over whether to release the photo of a dead Osama bin Laden reminded me more than anything of Discipline and Punish. The interesting thing is that the White House did provide a photo, not of bin Laden but of this:

Foucault notes in Discipline and Punish that punishment is the most hidden part of the penal process. Specifically, punishment of the body is hidden. Public execution no longer exists as spectical, prisoners are not paraded in front of the people. They are secreted away. As such, "the expiation that once rained down upon the body must be replaced by a punishment that acts in depth on the heart, the thoughts, the will, the inclinations (16)." 

bin Laden was not a prisoner in the traditional sense. His compound acted as a self-imprisonment, but he was not in the custody of a government. What's more, the purpose of his punishment was not to change him or even his followers. It had more to do with influencing American citizens. 

Focusing for a minute on what we can see: the eye immediately goes to Clinton's face, her hand over her mouth in tense shock. Is this the coup de grĂ¢ce? Is something going wrong? Is it simply difficult to watch? My eye then goes to Obama, face tense, gaze unwavering. His jaw is clenched a bit. Obviously something dramatic is happening. The other faces are less expressive but no less engaged. Every eye is zeroed in on what is before them 

The other thing we see is the space: the Situation Room. A place most people never see, but at this moment, the public is allowed to glimpse a moment at the time of punishment. What we see here is not the condemend, but the punishers. The executioner is not masked; instead, the hood is pulled up to reveal heads of state in a photo that will become indicative of the moment. More than likely, this will end up in text books, the illustrative photo of a brief victory in a neverending war. The executioner lifted up for posterity.

The release of this photo is preceeded by Obama's speech, which offers this: “But tonight, we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to. That is the story of our history, whether it’s the pursuit of prosperity for our people, or the struggle for equality for all our citizens; our commitment to stand up for our values abroad, and our sacrifices to make the world a safer place.”

Americans seem united in that room. We never saw the execution, but the emotional pull of those expressions pull us in. We as a whole, as Americans, are what matters. To release a photo or show the raid proper puts the emphasis on the spectacle of the body, which would be determimental to the very project of counter-terrorism. Counter-terrorism doesn't just hunt terrorists, it also solidifies the idea of our standing as a nation and of each and every one of us as human beings who need to be saved. What better way to gather the national family around the dinner table than with a photo that tells a story of derring do? It becomes more like another story we are told that defines American values: the mth of the cherry tree. "I cannot tell a lie," says Washington. He never said this. But that doesn't matter because the point was never historical. It was mythological, establishing a value system for Ameircans.

bin Laden's death does remove a horrible person from the earth, but more than anything, it reinforces our understanding of what those who are not the condemned should hold in their hearts and minds. That's pretty fucking fascinating. I won't get into here whether I think those values are good or just. My purpose here is mainly to write a bit about this moment in time and the images we were allowed to see and what that might signify.

Things I Read While Writing This

Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault

Something that is not pretentious to clear your palate

I have this song on my workout playlist, but I always forget it's there, and I start giggling a lot when I hear it. 

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