War is hell. We can't get enough of it

In their continual search for sensation, the media turn tragedy and atrocity into lurid entertainment
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A curious light was shed on the year's peace in Northern Ireland by the revelation that, while economic activity is picking up, the construction industry is in crisis. Builders have been going bust all over for years, except presumably in Northern Ireland, where the weekly outrages must have resulted in plenty of work for the building trades; a year after the ceasefire the swollen construction sector stares ruin in the face.

In the United States there exists a gang of roving roofers who drive their camper vans hell-for-leather in the wake of the devastation wreaked by hurricanes. While house-owners are trying to flee the storm, the builders are driving towards it. The householder has barely begun sobbing over the wreckage before the builders are quarrelling around her like vultures. British building firms are probably even now bidding for the contracts to rebuild the smashed up cities of Bosnia.

There is nothing novel in the idea that demolition and building are two sides of the same coin, but the corollary, that both human society and individual human beings are organised for catastrophe followed by recovery rather than for unvarying "peace and prosperity", is seldom considered. Though civilisation struggles on in the belief that we are naturally rational, reasonable people who will submerge our personal preferences and needs in the service of the public good, the truth seems to be something else.

Everybody appears to deplore the war in Bosnia, yet there seems to be no yearning to end it, whether on the part of the combatants, the journalists or those of us who switch on the news every hour or so to find out how much sophisticated weaponry we have unleashed against the rather too glibly hated Serbs. In some horrible way people, including those of us who read about them every day in our newspapers and watch them every evening on television, seem to be enjoying the never-ending list of atrocities.

If we were not getting some kind of gratification out of Bosnia, it would not occupy the enormous newspaper space and air-time that is devoted to it. If there were not a thrill to be got from the spectacle of a woman smashed by a bomb being carried in a tarpaulin this very newspaper would not have printed Rikard Lama's photograph on the front page and in colour. The bidding for the world rights to pictures of the pile of bloody corpses must have been fierce; any photographer lucky enough to happen along in that minute and cool enough to get his wide-angle picture in sharp focus has got it made.

Not only the spectator enjoys it - in some horrible way the participants also enjoy it. After so many months in the headlines can Bosnia return to being an unknown enclave in an unvisited part of central Europe? How could handsome, eloquent, world stage virtuoso performer Muhamed Sacirbey come to terms with obscurity?

In the endless debate on the acceptability of boxing as a spectator sport we have been told several thousand times that it is natural for men to fight and even that boxing is a cleaner way of fighting than street fighting. Young men's natural aggression as tamed by the Marquess of Queensberry's rules is seen as an acceptable alternative to untutored brutality. The obvious truth that fighters are poor boys being manipulated and exploited by rich men is never emphasised. In the same way we must ask ourselves whether we are not exploiting the young men so murderously scrapping in Bosnia.

All kinds of entertainment are in it for us, thrilling tales of our brave doctors descending like archangels to aid mere mortals in their under- equipped hospitals, heart-wrenching encounters with handsome young refugees who have obligingly written their heartache out for us in English.

As front-line entertainment Bosnia has created stars; in Northern Ireland, too, ordinary people rose to the occasion, passioning and plaining on prime-time television in a kind of improvised grand opera. We, the viewers, could hardly get enough of it. For a peaceful, reasonable people we are strangely attached to the imagery of fury and unreason. We have as prurient an interest in other people's violence as we have in other people's sex.

Jaw-jaw may be better than war-war; but it is certainly less interesting. The same newspapers that are bulging with imagery of blown-off hands lying on market stalls beside shattered eggs in the Sarajevo atrocity will not carry intensely atmospheric accounts of the thrust, parry and counter- thrust of the peace talks. Even in talking of the talks, I have had to use the imagery of violence, in this case of duelling. Just so, politicians "hit back" at those who "attack" them; no negotiation is interesting unless it is a "battle".

The subliminal message is stronger than the overt one. Overtly we deplore war, but in the semantics of everyday life war is exciting; both talk and peace are boring. When I pass the amusement arcade I don't hear talk, I hear crash, pow, zap, ack-ack-ack!

It was not ever thus. Newspapers did not always run pictures of the dead and dying. Television cameras did not always come in close on corpses and pools of blood. The privacy of the dead and the mutilated and the shocked and the grieving was not systematically violated until very recently. The tone of newspaper reporting of atrocities was judicious, detached rather than ghoulish; grisly detail was neither sought nor invented.

In the search for sensation the media have pushed the frontiers of what can be shown further and further, as if an already jaded population could only be moved by the Technicolor portrayal of atrocity in close-up. The images to be disseminated in a public service film to discourage children from taking short cuts across railway lines would have been considered unsuitable for children's eyes a mere 10 years ago. Now seven- and eight- year-olds are expected to look steadily at what purports to be the smashed head of a little girl their own age.

There is no advertising that does not send a positive message. The public- service film will tell children in the film language they understand that the railway line is exciting, a dangerous place and therefore the place to be. Playing tag with trains will beat even lobbing objects from the tops of high-rise buildings as a way into the action. Some of our children will long for peace and security and be afraid of the railway line; they will be called "girls" whether they are or not. The others will be looking for adventure.

As we watch our children taking death-defying risks, whether by popping pills of unknown manufacture, or entering into intimacy with total strangers, or bunking off or joy-riding, or the more salutary pursuits of rock climbing and bungee jumping, we have to realise that they are not yet capable of peace. There will be peace enough in the grave, they think. The challenge that faces those who have realised the pleasures of serenity is to make them equally attractive to the hell-raisers. Fat chance.