Ceci N’est Pas Un Enfant Mort: How We Learnt to See War as Humanitarians

by Peter Lagerquist

Recalling last year's scandal in which the BBC refused to run a DEC emergency appeal for aid to Gaza, Peter Lagerquist reflects on the limitations of the discourse of humanitarianism.

First published: 27 August, 2010 | Category: Media, Terror/War

“…To allow discourse to collapse of its own weight…

minus any area to serve as a common ground…”

Michel Foucault, 1986

on what might result from disavowing what is plain to see,

say in a drawing of a pipe.

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When Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak proclaimed in January 2009, in the midst of his country’s bloody police action against the Gaza Strip, that “Israel would not allow a humanitarian crisis in Gaza,” many observers would have been forgiven for being momentarily overtaken by a strangely hollow feeling.  Humanitarian crises are murky, eternally liminal events.  Even the people who make them their business have little idea of when one has regressed from a situation which is all-around miserable, to a humanitarian crisis.  But it may be presumed that if many people were to start dying, one would be getting close.  Which is why Barak’s assurances that he would not let such a crisis occur, while he was making many people die, contained within it all the revelatory indiscretion of that line, from Stanley Kubrick’s classic film Dr. Strangelove; “No fighting in the war room!”  There is a moment when language doubles back on itself, collapses under its own contradictions, and leaves us to briefly apprehend beyond it a vast, echoing void. 

Language prone to such collapses is usually recognized as absurd.  With this in mind, it can be said that what happed in Gaza last year was a humanitarian crisis in at least one, certifiable sense.  It was a crisis for humanitarianism itself; how it professes to structure our understanding of humanity, and what it promises to guarantee in return for our belief in itself.  “Not unlike raising animals for slaughter on a farm, the Israeli government maintains that it is providing Palestinians with assistance so that it can have a free hand in attacking them,” wrote Israeli academic Neve Gordon in The Nation, capturing how this promise was betrayed in the Strip at the beginning of this year when humanitarianism was publicly drafted not as a bulwark against human misery, but as fully uniformed auxiliary of those who inflict it.

The crisis of humanitarianism is serious one because a very large share of the suffering with which we are confronted is presented to us as humanitarian suffering.  Its peculiarly obtuse formula will be familiar to any TV viewer. It is news that does not enter conflict so much as tread around it; it is why earthquake and flood appeals are the quintessential humanitarian events. No one did this. We are not angry at anyone.  It impels nothing but the giving of money, which in turn makes you feel as if you have done something.  This is why the Red Cross has replaced the Church as the new opium of the moral media masses. And just like religion, humanitarianism has a way of structuring agency. In a world where everyone truly believed, say the European Middle Ages, agency ultimately rested in God. Things happened because God wanted them to happen.  In the world of humanitarianism, things just happen. Modern heresy is to wrap that happening into politics. 

This is not to say that the news does not tell us what transpires, mechanically speaking. But with the exception of stories so well grooved that we can stop pretending there are multiple sides to it, everything in the tone of the reporting, the obtuseness of the questions asked, the carefully balanced formulae of delivery works to ensure our cerebral cavity remains uncluttered. “The Sri Lankan government says, the Tamil Tigers says….” Can you feel the next line coming, perhaps you heard it this past spring? “Regardless, it is clear that it is the civilian population that is suffering.” This is why, when certain kinds of news organizations lay out the dynamics of what is happening out there, one has the feeling they are talking about tectonic plate movements. Regardless, it is clear that the earth is now moving. 

There are a few reasons for why we put up with this.  One is that there are few alternatives. To gather news is costly, and those who have money do so because they sell advertising, which requires their news to be as inoffensive as possible to as large an audience as possible.  Some public networks in Europe, required to straddle national audiences, or project their voice overseas, are subsidized to provide such inoffensive programming.  Yet it is also true that humanitarianism is a convenient kind of packaging for things. It absolves us of having figure out what is at stake, in the context of any particular conflict.  And by provoking empathy the news at least allows us to feel that we have done some part of our job as moral, human beings.  Now who do I call to make this better, we might even say, and reach for our credit cards. The Red Cross? Oxfam? Not only has our moral economy become increasingly reliant on this exchange; for many of us it is in fact the only one possible.  This is why the short circuiting of this familiar formula is likely to provoke a widely felt yet also awkwardly articulated discomfort. When someone, say a TV network which presents suffering to us only in its humanitarian packaging, does not allow us to go through with the transaction. 

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Amidst the tumult of Israel’s 22-day war on the Gaza Strip, much was written in the UK press about the refusal of the British Broadcasting Corporation to air an aid appeal for Palestinian victims of the conflict. The appeal, as keen followers of the news may recall, was launched by a group of humanitarian organizations, including Oxfam, the British Red Cross, Care, and Save the Children UK, collectively soliciting donations under the rubric of the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC). In recent times, the DEC had launched similar campaigns for victims of conflict in Burma, the Congo and Darfur. The BBC has aired these appeals as a public service. The organization’s refusal to do so on behalf of the Palestinians of Gaza sparked a small media storm, particularly in the UK, and though rival network Sky also followed suit, the BBC, which holds a special place in the British imaginary and is also the beneficiary of billions of pounds in public funding, absorbed the brunt of the ensuing wave of attention. 

Most of it was of the unwelcome kind, with the Corporation’s few if also often influential defenders taking desperate stands on ankle-high barricades.  Dan Sabbagh, Media Editor of the Times, stood on one, arguing that “the reality is that the campaign against the BBC has become politicised in its own right, which demonstrates that the Corporation was right to be cautious about running the appeal”; presumably much like the invasion of Iraq was justified because once the US army was on the scene, Al Qaeda did show up. Countervailing critiques were more common, and tellingly, these came flooding in, as the Peter Preston noted in the Guardian, “from all points of the political compass,” including individuals and organizations which had previously had little if anything to say about the Gaza war itself.  What was at stake, vouched nearly all, was a principle that transcends mere politics.

It collided with one that holds itself in equally high regard and for the same reason, setting up a most surreal shadow-boxing contest:  Humanitarianism versus Impartiality.  To know that one is the brother of the other is to remember, amidst the ensuing debate, that family feuds tend to be waged around the unspoken things the antagonists have in common, rather than the ways they perceive themselves to be different. Thus on one side was BBC Director General, Mark Thompson:  “We are passionate about defending the BBC’s impartiality and we worry with such an emotive and such a political story - the United Nations this morning describing it as a political crisis with humanitarian consequences… We worry about being seen to endorse something which could give people the impression that we were backing one side.”  On the other people like Nick Clegg, leader of the UK’s perennial opposition party, the Liberal Democrats, and today a partner in the UK’s new centre-right government: “It’s an insult to the viewing public to suggest they can’t distinguish between the humanitarian needs of thousands of children and families in Gaza and the political sensitivities of the Middle East.” And regardless of where one stood on the issue, it was difficult to avoid the feeling that both were somehow dancing around something.

In the BBC’s hypothetical defense, was it not conceivable that showing images of the suffering that Israel has wrought might propel someone towards a more critical view of its actions? Was there not something slightly naïve in Clegg’s assertion that an appreciation of suffering in Gaza would not inflect political sensitivities? Of course there was. In fact, one would fervently hope that images of suffering were capable of provoking an emotional response in audiences, and that this response would impinge on their sense of right and wrong, because if not these audiences would be clinically deficient, as moral beings.  The BBC’s position is squarely planted in the knowledge that the vast majority of its viewers are not thus impaired and is as such not in the slightest bit insulting. Those who criticize it on these grounds, implicitly argue that they are in fact perfectly capable of being suitably uncaring - though they are in this instance unlikely to donate money to the DEC - and should not be complimented by being told otherwise. 

What something could the BBC and DEC both not deal with?  The fact that images of suffering are liable to propel not only humanitarian impulses, but also political ones.  And with every embellishment or awkward reframing of his position, Mark Thompson made this ever more painfully obvious. One remark in particular should be allowed to put some weight on itself. “Inevitably an appeal would use pictures which are the same or similar to those we would be using in our news programmes,” he writes, “but would do so with the objective of encouraging public donations.  The danger for the BBC is that this could be interpreted as taking a political stance on an ongoing story.” Because amidst all else that this implies, what does Thompson think is the objective of the BBC’s pictures, if they, in his own and the UN’s words depict nothing but “humanitarian consequences?” What are they supposed to evoke?

In the media sphere, it bears recalling, emotion is the cash equivalent. Which is why when someone breaks down and cries, say on a TV talk show, it is called the money shot.  Reportedly, this term originally derives from the pornographic industry,  the money shot being the shot of the male porn star ejaculating. Which is another way of saying that humanitarian reporting without a humanitarian outlet is titillation without release. At the terminus of this sordid speculation is the image of a dead, hungry, or otherwise suffering human being which means nothing, is embedded in no other reality but the image, and allows no response from you but free-floating pathos. It is as if what is pictured hovers at a remove from the image itself. And if nothing else, this affirms that the crisis of humanitarianism, which is also the crisis of impartiality, is in one sense a crisis of representation.

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The picture which appeared on the BBC’s website, attached to a December 5, 2008 article, shows a family hunkered over a small table, inside a room with raw concrete walls. There are five children of varying ages. The man of the room digs into a bowl of something. To his side sits a fully veiled woman. The table is small and low and battered and there are only three small bowls on it, but though evidently poor, the family does not seem skeletal. The next-to-youngest one looks curiously at the camera. Filed by regional correspondent Paul Wood, the report is titled “Inside Gaza: Malnutrition and shortages,” and proceeds to explain how “People are not starving in Gaza but there is what the aid agencies call ‘food insecurity.” We are given the impression that this is not quite a humanitarian crisis, so to speak, even as we are told of the hardship on view.

“Fauzi, his wife and six children all live with him in a single-roomed house, scraping by on food aid from the United Nations and others,” explains Wood. Then Fauzi: “I have no income to feed my children. Sometimes I cannot even give them bread…We beg some food from here, and some food from there. Our life is begging.” A westerner on the scene bears him out: “People were hungry, literally. There was a shortage of everything here, including food, and we actually ran out for a couple of days” says John Ging, Head of Gaza operation for the UN Relief Works Agency for Palestine refugees, whose handouts were all that kept some 800,000 Gazans alive prior to the war, and still do so after it.

Scroll forward from this image to another, of an Israeli security officer carrying a twisted metal tube behind a taped police cordon. “Gaza rocket hits city of Ashkelon,” proclaims the headline, dated February 3, twelve days after the war ended. Below, the BBC provides the full necessary context for the war, using the Israeli government’s term for it: “The operation was launched to halt or significantly reduce rocket fire from Gaza, and to degrade the military capability of the Hamas militant group that controls the territory.” The choice of language is telling; it is not even: “Israel says that the operation was launched…” Those who followed the war may also have noted that “significantly reduce rocket fire,” was not what it had been about, at first. Any rocket fire was intolerable, until someone in the Israeli government remembered that even when its own army was fully and permanently encamped in Gaza rockets were also falling on Israel. To recognized this slippery re-definition of what the war’s aims were, or at least became, is to erase any lingering doubt that the BBC was not only taking Israel’s word for pertinent context. They were channeling it in real time. 

What is the relationship between this text, and the story about hunger-and-malnourishment-that-is-not-starvation? None, and that is the point. The hunger has disappeared as a causal explanation for anything. For the war itself, for what violence persisted afterwards. Hunger is only a humanitarian consequence, something standing outside of events, which could explain them, and impel action. Say, shooting rockets at those who make you hungry-and-malnourished-without-starving you, to make them stop making you hungry-and-malnourished-without-starving you.  What hunger had brought people to do and what some were still doing - witness “Gaza rocket hits city of Ashkelon” - had slipped out of the short hand. With it disappeared any other context but that communicated by the government of Israel, any intimation that this might have been a war to safeguard its right to sow deprivation in Gaza, quietly, ceaselessly, and without repercussion.

It is with this in mind that one can understand what Mark Thompson was aiming at, when he vowed, amidst refusing to air the DEC’s appeal, that “we do want to cover the humanitarian story, we want to cover it in our news programmes where we can put it in context, we can do it in an even, carefully balanced, objective way.” In noting that the humanitarian and the political were in fact tacitly elided in this particular context, one may accordingly also fully appreciate the thoroughness of Thompson’s impartiality. Since hunger was and remains a weapon in this conflict, arming someone to resist this particular form of violence, say with food, would indeed entail taking sides in it. He was right again, even in being wrong.

Lest there be any lingering confusion, it is accordingly clear that the question in the DEC appeal was not about impartiality, journalism’s equivalent of Santa Claus – a figment no one really believes in, even most children, but which most of the industry which produces and consumes news and its derivative products needs to pay lip service to, while telling themselves this is for the children’s benefit.  The fact that Thompson’s decision reportedly set off much grumbling on the Corporation’s lower deck was further evidence of this. The kind of reporting cited above had not offended the BBC’s correspondents, was not going to stoke a mutiny.  But without completely discarding their sense of fairness, one can see how the DEC affair might have been the proverbial last straw for some of the BBC’s old hands. The one thing they had been allowed to report on were humanitarian issues, and now management was saying that this was pointless. Image that all your life you thought you were distributing something vital to the world, and the one day you are told you are nothing but a flabby entertainer in a cheap red suit, peddling dud sentiments. This is why a side note by Wood in his December article throws up more pathos in hindsight than he bargained for. “Our arrival was filmed by Gaza TV,” he wrote. “Such is the feeling of isolation here that journalists coming in from the outside world is seen as an event in itself.” Because they were the event, dud sentiments and all.  There was nothing outside of it.

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Those who followed Israel’s own moral response to the Gaza war may have noted a final, untapped irony in the DEC affair. For while the BBC was worrying about being seen to endorse aid appeals for Palestinians, Israelis themselves, including many who had staunchly supported the war, were not beyond brandishing their own brand of concern for Gaza.  The star turn was provided by famed Israeli singer Ahinoam Nini,  filed as Noa in Blockbuster’s World Music section,  who signed up to sing for Gaza’s children at a Tel Aviv charity event held the day after the war.  This sparked a small protest campaign among the event’s radical leftist participants, because she had during the second week of the assault written an open letter to the Palestinian people posted on a peace website and republished by the daily Yediot Aharonot, in which she outdid even Ehud Barak for cynicism. Vowing, “My brothers, I cry for you,” also “I cry for us too, yes…” she explained that “I can only wish for you that Israel will do the job we all know needs to be done, and finally RID YOU of this cancer, this virus, this monster called fanaticism, today, called Hamas.” Despite the protests, that part of Noa’s sentiment was far from eccentric, both among self-consciously conscientious Israelis, and foreign readers. “I hope every Palestiniane reads this” wrote one touched talk-backer from Australia. By this way of understanding things, there was no contradiction in Noa’s civic positioning. The killing itself was charity; what followed was charity by other means.

In the course of her brief stint as Israel’s Prime Minister, Golda Meir encapsulated this brand of ethical self-regard in the statement: “We can forgive the Arabs for shooting our children. We can never forgive the Arabs for making us shoot their children.” It in turn grows from a trope handed down from Israel’s narrative of the 1948 war, known as “shooting and crying,” or in Noa’s case, “shooting and singing.” What this tries to paste over is the fact that Zionists cry because in the final analysis they don’t care, and, critically, would not have done anything differently as result of knowing what would happen as a result of their actions. This being verified by the fact that they had a pretty good idea of what was going to happen before they did it – pulling a trigger tends to send a bullet shooting in a certain direction, etc - and still did it. Their tears are for another reality in which they would have cared. Ceci N’est Pas Une Larme. Which is also to say that in purporting not to take sides, the BBC has in fact done so with a vengeance, becoming hyper-Zionists; unable to negotiate the fact that someone had to have pulled the trigger, but also disliking anyone emoting too much over the consequences. In Israel, such people are called Likudniks. 

The fact that the other prominent and recent instance of the BBC denying an DEC appeal was for the victims of the war Israel waged before Gaza, in Lebanon in 2006,  might begin to hint even more strongly at a certain commonality of outlook between this state and the Corporation,  perchance also the brand of news the latter peddles. Consider the reflexive neutering of the empathy and guilt which might otherwise spring from what is plain to see. The implied repudiation of agency. And that somewhere inside this moral contortion is an object which can be divorced from causality and consequence. To which things could be done, over and over again, without this violence being anyone’s identifiable fault, in an ethical, if not mechanical sense. A perfect humanitarian victim. At which point one could return to that feeling of isolation in Gaza that Woods mentioned, and try briefly to imagine how it might feel to be that object. What might your response be?

To start along this empathic approach, it bears dredging up a writer who came in vogue shortly after the Bush administration opted to scupper what adherence to international humanitarian etiquette the United States had previously pretended to. In his book Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Italian philosopher Girgio Agamben embellished a theory, begun by German Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt, of how the Nazi death camps did not in fact constitute an aberration on Western civilization, but a logical auxiliary to it, if also in this instance a particularly extreme one. Agamben does so by departing from something defined under ancient Roman law as Homo Sacer: a being who could be killed but not sacrificed, because it, they, had no value.  This being was the paradigmatic forbearer of those who perished behind Hitler’s barbed wire, argues Agamben. 

It is superfluous here to lay out the remainder of Agamben’s argument. What is relevant is to hold on to his underlying metaphor: the idea of sacrifice. The Western media and its audiences tend to handle it very awkwardly when brown people on the other side of the world hold up the bodies of dead sons, daughters, wives and husbands, and proclaim for the lens that they were martyrs for something. To most of us it seems a distancing formula, a form of exploitation even, wrapping up and occluding the life lost, and as such profaning it. We would prefer it if they just cried, nice and, well, humanitarian-like. Just like we might cry, we think, even if we also happen to live in countries that frequently go to war, and send back coffins wrapped in flags, containing uniformed, mercilessly truncated lives, known as heroes.

The meaning of sacrifice is something that Israel itself otherwise comprehends well. Because there is only one thing worse than the slaughter of six million people and that is the slaughter of six million people for no reason. Israel invests this void with meaning, by moving these deaths out of the realm of the humanitarian, into that of politics.  In so doing it turns the Holocaust into a giant sacrifice. Whatever else one thinks about Zionism, its claims and what it has wrought, it is difficult not to appreciate the sense of redemption that this bestows. Its echoing whisper is not in this sense “Never again (at least to us),” but “Let’s do something about it,” and is why the rapid historical transmutation of this conviction into “We didn’t do it (they forced us)” belies more than one tragedy; the birth of a country chronically compelled to deny or obfuscate its own agency; and with it a people who can increasingly only be seen, if they can at all be seen, as humanitarian victims.  Ceci Est Un Palestinien.

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After the conclusion of the Gaza war, in one of her tireless and eternally futile briefings from the Palestinian menagerie, Israeli journalist Amira Hass offered up and let linger an image which, as we approach the second anniversary of that tragedy, is well worth recalling. “The data, according to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, as of January 22, are as follows,” she wrote, “1,285 dead, of whom 1,062 were non-combatants (895 civilians and 167 civilian police). Of these, 281 were children (21.8 percent) and 111 were women. There are 4,336 wounded, among them 1,133 children. The 6-year-old girl who we saw in the Zeytun neighborhood, who holds her hands up in the air in fear every time the photographer brings his camera near her, is not included in the list of the casualties.”

In retrospect, we may well conclude that the nameless girl had more reasons to be afraid of the camera than we ourselves could at the time comprehend. Because what was it that Mark Thompson said?:  “Inevitably an appeal would use pictures which are the same or similar to those we would be using in our news programmes.”  What if they were indeed the same picture? Some of us might once have read something, possibly apocryphal, about how people in newly colonized tracts of the soon-to-be Third World were once in the early years of European colonization afraid to have their pictures taken, worried that some vital part of themselves, something like a soul, would be confiscated by that process of image-capture. Caught now in the vise between impartiality and humanitarianism, they should be doubly afraid, because even if the camera does not siphon off their soul, it might copyright their suffering, and make sure that only those behind the camera could profit from it. Once pictured, you are not eligible to participate; no public donations please. In other words, the picture might literally do what bullets did not: kill its subject. In which instance another picture could be taken. Also this meaningless. Lest there be any doubt, finding a way out of this gloomy hall of mirrors does not involve your credit card. It involves something akin to remembering the image of a dead child as a sacrifice. To ask what it was for? To keep asking.

Peter Lagerquist is a Swedish writer frequently working in Israel and Palestine. He has written for Le Monde Diplomatique, New Left Review, London Review of Books, and The Middle East Report Information Project (MERIP), among others.

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