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International no image

Published on September 5th, 2012 | by Louisa Tratalos
Image © [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="566"] © Steve Evans from India and USA (Flickr) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons[/caption]The recent video footage of a public execution in Qol in Parwan province, not far from Kabul has created a shockwave of international debate. A young woman wearing a blue headscarf is filmed as she awaits her death in front of a cheering crowd of over one hundred men. The video, which is still available on YouTube in an edited format, serves as both a trophy and a warning. Will the Sixteen Billion dollars which international donors have allocated for aid in Afghanistan be able to help towards putting an end to such violence? The video features 22 year old Najiba receiving nine gun shots which leaves her lying dead for all to see; the punishment for her alleged adultery. Comments on social media websites such as Twitter remind us of the fact that this is no isolated incident but an everyday reality in certain regions of the Middle East and indeed, across the world. Modern technology has allowed what goes on to others ‘over there’ to be seen by we, ‘over here’. When viewing Najiba’s death here in the UK, we know only the first name of the victim who is being ‘punished’ and the act for which she is being put to death yet the story made our television news channels – something unusual for an individual’s experience of violence in the Middle East. Najiba’s death has shocked so many as the brutality of the act is so transparent, and as spectators, we view it as an official ceremony; a formal procedure - there is an executor; a short speech which explains the act Najiba is accused of and most harrowingly; a supportive audience of bystanders. It is interesting to note the difference in who had heard of this tragedy, in comparison to the execution of Kenneth Bigley, who was held hostage and beheaded in 2004. Western media followed the story weaving his personal life into the national spectacle which had the country captured in a period of anticipation and concern for Kenneth. The deaths of Najiba – an Afghan woman killed by Afghan men – and Kenneth Bigley – a British man killed by Middle Eastern men are viewed very differently. Is it only their nationality and gender that cause this divide in how these videos are watched? Judith Butler in her book Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence states that the attitude of Western superiority over the Arab world as ‘other’ encourages the viewing of the foreign body as unreal. Using this structure she claims “if violence is done against those who are unreal, then, from the perspective of violence, it fails to injure or negate those lives since those lives are already negated.” We read of deaths of Arab people in our newspapers every day, yet mainstream media excludes them from those worthy of obituary. Is Butler correct in explaining this through the Western viewing of Eastern deaths as ‘other’? Alternatively, Laura Marks may be correct in arguing that it is a consequence of us being overexposed to images of foreign conflict to the point by which we are desensitized by it. Another approach to understanding our lack of extreme shock in learning of horror in Eastern conflict is perhaps the lack of relationship between the viewer and the victim of violence. When we read of rising death tolls or see areas of military devastation - we see real homes destroyed and we view real blood but are we presented – as we were with Kenneth Bigley – with a live face-to-face encounter with those that we see the violence affecting?  YouTube has revolutionised the way we view horror by inviting us to watch it in detail but whether to protect the viewer or the dignity of the deceased – such images are rarely shown in our news outlets.  When Kenneth Bigley’s hostage tape was broadcast we met the gaze of the man we saw captured in a foreign place and by ‘others’ who were faceless voices off camera. Levinas explored one’s face-to-face encounter with the other as an unconscious ethics between two human beings and for him Levinas, “the perception of the face of another is a responsibility”. When we see Kenneth Bigley beg for his life – he asks each and every viewer to help him and our empathy as human individuals is sparked. How would Najiba’s death be viewed differently if our screens were to feature her face; if we were to look into her eyes? Despite denying their involvement, the Taliban, who ruled large regions of the country between 1996 and 2001, have been blamed for the death of Najiba. The act of violence is looked upon with disgust yet this extra-juridical execution is not very far from the practises we see other governments performing, often within their own legal systems. The sixteen billion invested in Afghanistan will be used in attempts to dilute corruption throughout the country; and the money has only been granted under certain conditions. The government must provide evidence that the money is helping to reduce corruption before the entire sum will be released. This is the first time this has happened during an international donor’s conference and comes with the hope of, in Hillary Clinton’s words, “fighting corruption, improving governance, strengthening the rule of law, increasing access to economic opportunity for all Afghans, especially for women.” Western media outlets refer to impersonal death tolls of those who die in foreign conflict everyday but never are we introduced to these individuals. Perhaps if levels of violence in Afghanistan began to stabilise and our screens and newspapers weren’t flooded with death tolls and regular mentions of devastation then we would start identifying the extent to which individuals who are other to us are suffering. Certainly new media and technology not only amplifies our exposure to violence whilst perhaps minimising our reaction to it but it invites us to see what before was unseen. Despite the videos of Najiba and Kenneth Bigley serving as demonstrations of the authority of non-governmental groups – video today also provides a means by which victims of, or witnesses to, horror can expose the perpetrators. This use of video recordings of violence has shattered the Western racist myth that “Arab populations were largely apathetic” and that “the Arabs do not understand or want democracy.” Who knows whether sixteen billion dollars can help prevent what we view as distant violence affecting faceless others? We need to hear the stories of people like Najiba from the people who are suffering – the victim, friends and family. The wide spread torture of women like Najiba make it difficult to recognise each case and the power of the Taliban make such occurrences difficult to prevent. Maybe further advances in technology and new media will allow for the circulation of these individual accounts to be increased and perhaps that will be the way by which violence in Afghanistan will be transformed from impersonal to identifiable, unreported to documented. By sharing virtual spaces with these people we can begin to view distant horror as a reality and equate human suffering globally.

1

Broadcast: Public Execution in Afghanistan

© Steve Evans from India and USA (Flickr) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The recent video footage of a public execution in Qol in Parwan province, not far from Kabul has created a shockwave of international debate. A young woman wearing a blue headscarf is filmed as she awaits her death in front of a cheering crowd of over one hundred men. The video, which is still available on YouTube in an edited format, serves as both a trophy and a warning. Will the Sixteen Billion dollars which international donors have allocated for aid in Afghanistan be able to help towards putting an end to such violence?

The video features 22 year old Najiba receiving nine gun shots which leaves her lying dead for all to see; the punishment for her alleged adultery. Comments on social media websites such as Twitter remind us of the fact that this is no isolated incident but an everyday reality in certain regions of the Middle East and indeed, across the world. Modern technology has allowed what goes on to others ‘over there’ to be seen by we, ‘over here’.

When viewing Najiba’s death here in the UK, we know only the first name of the victim who is being ‘punished’ and the act for which she is being put to death yet the story made our television news channels – something unusual for an individual’s experience of violence in the Middle East. Najiba’s death has shocked so many as the brutality of the act is so transparent, and as spectators, we view it as an official ceremony; a formal procedure – there is an executor; a short speech which explains the act Najiba is accused of and most harrowingly; a supportive audience of bystanders. It is interesting to note the difference in who had heard of this tragedy, in comparison to the execution of Kenneth Bigley, who was held hostage and beheaded in 2004. Western media followed the story weaving his personal life into the national spectacle which had the country captured in a period of anticipation and concern for Kenneth. The deaths of Najiba – an Afghan woman killed by Afghan men – and Kenneth Bigley – a British man killed by Middle Eastern men are viewed very differently. Is it only their nationality and gender that cause this divide in how these videos are watched?

Judith Butler in her book Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence states that the attitude of Western superiority over the Arab world as ‘other’ encourages the viewing of the foreign body as unreal. Using this structure she claims “if violence is done against those who are unreal, then, from the perspective of violence, it fails to injure or negate those lives since those lives are already negated.” We read of deaths of Arab people in our newspapers every day, yet mainstream media excludes them from those worthy of obituary. Is Butler correct in explaining this through the Western viewing of Eastern deaths as ‘other’? Alternatively, Laura Marks may be correct in arguing that it is a consequence of us being overexposed to images of foreign conflict to the point by which we are desensitized by it.

Another approach to understanding our lack of extreme shock in learning of horror in Eastern conflict is perhaps the lack of relationship between the viewer and the victim of violence. When we read of rising death tolls or see areas of military devastation – we see real homes destroyed and we view real blood but are we presented – as we were with Kenneth Bigley – with a live face-to-face encounter with those that we see the violence affecting?  YouTube has revolutionised the way we view horror by inviting us to watch it in detail but whether to protect the viewer or the dignity of the deceased – such images are rarely shown in our news outlets.  When Kenneth Bigley’s hostage tape was broadcast we met the gaze of the man we saw captured in a foreign place and by ‘others’ who were faceless voices off camera. Levinas explored one’s face-to-face encounter with the other as an unconscious ethics between two human beings and for him Levinas, “the perception of the face of another is a responsibility”. When we see Kenneth Bigley beg for his life – he asks each and every viewer to help him and our empathy as human individuals is sparked. How would Najiba’s death be viewed differently if our screens were to feature her face; if we were to look into her eyes?

Despite denying their involvement, the Taliban, who ruled large regions of the country between 1996 and 2001, have been blamed for the death of Najiba. The act of violence is looked upon with disgust yet this extra-juridical execution is not very far from the practises we see other governments performing, often within their own legal systems. The sixteen billion invested in Afghanistan will be used in attempts to dilute corruption throughout the country; and the money has only been granted under certain conditions. The government must provide evidence that the money is helping to reduce corruption before the entire sum will be released. This is the first time this has happened during an international donor’s conference and comes with the hope of, in Hillary Clinton’s words, “fighting corruption, improving governance, strengthening the rule of law, increasing access to economic opportunity for all Afghans, especially for women.” Western media outlets refer to impersonal death tolls of those who die in foreign conflict everyday but never are we introduced to these individuals. Perhaps if levels of violence in Afghanistan began to stabilise and our screens and newspapers weren’t flooded with death tolls and regular mentions of devastation then we would start identifying the extent to which individuals who are other to us are suffering. Certainly new media and technology not only amplifies our exposure to violence whilst perhaps minimising our reaction to it but it invites us to see what before was unseen.

Despite the videos of Najiba and Kenneth Bigley serving as demonstrations of the authority of non-governmental groups – video today also provides a means by which victims of, or witnesses to, horror can expose the perpetrators. This use of video recordings of violence has shattered the Western racist myth that “Arab populations were largely apathetic” and that “the Arabs do not understand or want democracy.” Who knows whether sixteen billion dollars can help prevent what we view as distant violence affecting faceless others? We need to hear the stories of people like Najiba from the people who are suffering – the victim, friends and family. The wide spread torture of women like Najiba make it difficult to recognise each case and the power of the Taliban make such occurrences difficult to prevent. Maybe further advances in technology and new media will allow for the circulation of these individual accounts to be increased and perhaps that will be the way by which violence in Afghanistan will be transformed from impersonal to identifiable, unreported to documented. By sharing virtual spaces with these people we can begin to view distant horror as a reality and equate human suffering globally.

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About the Author

Louisa Tratalos

Louisa Tratalos graduated in Visual Culture from Goldsmiths, University of London. Her interests lie in human rights and environmental issues, with a specific current focus on the Syrian conflict. She appreciates the importance of online digital content especially as a political tool for young people. She aims to follow a career in documentary film-making and the production of videos which can serve as campaign vehicles.



  • nicola

    that is just inhumane

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