There are many brilliant things about working on a foreign desk, but the sometime necessity of looking at pictures of suffering is a serious downside, to my mind. There's no moral content to that view – it just makes me a bit queasy. As far as possible, I avoid it.
Last week, though, that was impossible. The pictures of Gaddafi's last minutes were everywhere. They showed a bewildered old bastard, brought low from his imperious, sadistic pomp, dragged through the mud by the people he had oppressed for so long, and still, through the grogginess, with a glint of terror in his eyes. There's something uniquely unsettling about witnessing the last moments of a person who knows that he is soon to die.
Still, we put those pictures on the front page, as did nearly every other paper. Lots of people thought that was a terrible decision and said so, loudly, mainly on Twitter, mainly in terms that suggested that a cynical press had deployed the images salaciously. The picture didn't alter the fundamental facts, they said. Gaddafi was dead whether you printed the image or not. Why put those ghoulish, voyeuristic video stills in newsagents all over the country?
In fact, there are really good reasons. And as squeamish as I am about these things, I'm also totally confident it was the right choice – taken for the right reasons. Not titillation, not commercial necessity, but because there was no other way of telling the story accurately.
Gaddafi didn't die in his sleep; he wasn't given a warm send-off. He was killed by a crowd of youths so angry and so pumped by their own military success that they saw nothing wrong in so dehumanising an act.
You can put that in words, of course. You can describe it. But pictures are different. I defy anyone who hasn't seen them – the pictures of his abuse at the hands of the rebels, that is, not the pictures of his corpse, which are truly invasive – to really understand what happened that day. And anyone who didn't feel a shiver of revulsion on encountering the full facts is missing something essential about what happened.
Now, no one is obliged to contend with all this. If you're not interested, it's fine. You can buy a football magazine. But I don't particularly see why the rest of us should bow to those people's desire to remain entirely undisturbed by anything unpleasant.
As I said, I don't like looking at that stuff, either. But really, for someone who pretends to be reasonably well-informed about the world, I don't look at it anything like enough. If you do decide to wall yourself off from it, remember that you're declining a slightly better understanding of something enormously important. Remember that you're actively turning away from the truth.Reuse content