Thomas Sutcliffe: The 'You've Been Framed' War

Click to follow

Once only God saw everything – now we all share that most dubious of divine privileges. If you doubted the proposition, this was the year that proved it: a year that really brought home how close to redundancy the eyewitness is.

Once only God saw everything – now we all share that most dubious of divine privileges. If you doubted the proposition, this was the year that proved it: a year that really brought home how close to redundancy the eyewitness is. There would have been a time, not very long ago, when catastrophe depended on human go-betweens for its dissemination – professional describers or those qualified by accidental proximity to tell us about the collision between an unprecedented sight and an unprepared mind. But now the eyewitness is going the way of ostlers and wheel-tappers, pressed out of service by a new technology. When the World Trade Centre was attacked in September we all knew that it was only a matter of time before pictures, not just words, turned up to satisfy our appetite to know the worst.

The first images most people saw were taken by professional cameras – fixed in positions in the network offices, straining at the limits of their zoom lenses as they held on that plume of black smoke. You could tell they were fixed because they didn't flinch when the second aircraft entered the frame – appeared almost oblivious to the way it had altered what we were seeing from accident to dark design. And because of that – as remarkable as those pictures were – they didn't have the human quality of the video which showed us how quickly an ordinary day can be permanently severed from the usual.

In the foreground stood a fireman and a construction worker – looking down towards a manhole. And then one of them turned away and the camera sought out what had distracted him – a plane flying level and low into the side of one of the most famous landmarks in the world. In its seamless passage from the routine to the remarkable it had the feeling of a terrible, apocalyptic contribution to one of those television shows which sieve out slapstick from people's home videos. As such it marked the beginning of the You've Been Framed War – one in which the technology of leisure contributed as much to the historical record as more conventional kinds of inform-ation gathering.

The expected videos were missing – those monochrome targeting films in which a crisp civic geometry rotates in the frame before a blossom of smoke and flame erases it. Perhaps Afghanistan just didn't have much to offer in the way of geometry after 25 years of war – or perhaps the echoes with the terrible before-and-after of the World Trade Centre would have been too uncomfortable. For whatever reason, though, the footage stayed with the Pentagon analysts.

There was one exception – the strange greenish hue of a night-vision camera recording the spray of parachutes popping from the back of a C-130 as troops mounted an airborne assault on a Taliban airbase. A camcorder went along here too – poking through empty rooms in an unconvincing quest for evidence of triumph. A couple of rusty guns was the best they could do – a feeble haul which gave the first clue that this was less a triumph of surgical intervention than the most expensive fly-posting sortie in history.

If there weren't many images of targets caught in the cross-hairs of the laser designator, there were more intimate accounts of the violence – again delivered by the camcorder's ability to get into every cranny of human experience. Early in the war, footage of trench warfare between the Taliban troops and Northern Alliance rebels included the sobering sight of a large-calibre lump of metal shaving the camera man's ear. It might be comforting to believe that you never see the bullet that gets you, but this footage revealed that it simply isn't true. In another near-miss, one of the BBC's Kabul correspondents was filmed as he filed a radio report – his broadcast interrupted by a rising shriek in the air and the sudden implosion of the windows as an American bomb hit the house next door. The odd thing was that his body knew what was coming before he did – a kind of pre-shock running through it before the explosion took place. As a journalistic account of civilian vulnerability it could hardly be bettered.

Most significantly of all, the camcorder managed to capture even what was at pains to evade capture. Osama Bin Laden was fighting a video war too – well aware that his invisibility needed to be balanced by presence. In the early days of the war Al-Jazeera television provided him with a conduit to the world but his broadcasts then – self-consciously responsive to history – were not the ones that will endure.

His grainy, muffled confessional surely will. Discarded in the rush to escape, it was the kind of souvenir that must be committed to tape hundreds of times a day – a meeting between an admirer and the object of his admiration, the latter almost gracious in the way he shared the backstage gossip about his greatest performance yet. Those led to expect a demoniac Fu Manchu, boasting of his exploits, will have been disappointed. It was far more matter-of-fact than that – tinged here and there with a visionary derangement but pretty much devoid of incitement. Bin Laden wasn't really playing to the camera – because the camera was too humble an object to command his attention.

A technology that used to be the preserve of professionals has spread – with a kind of viral speed – into every corner of the world, even those corners hostile to the very idea of technology in the first place.