Archive | January, 2016

A moment of killing and transformation

13 Jan

For the past two weeks a number of images have been jostling in my mind, in search of a thread that ties them together. Instead of forcing a connection, I will set the images side by side to see whether links develop. Perhaps you will see what I’ve missed

Image 1–
It’s something of a jolt when each year, just three days after Christmas, the church year brings up the images of the slaughter of the holy innocents. Thus we remember King Herod’s killing of Bethlehem’s infants and babes in a vain attempt to ensure that King Jesus could never challenge King Herod. Several prayers and hymns in the Christmas season also refer to Jesus’ journey to Golgotha’s cross. They are precursors of the Lenten season, which begins five weeks after the Feast of the Holy Innocents–the season that culminates in The Three Days–from the cross on Friday to the empty tomb on Sunday. The Christian liturgical year brings these events before us every year–they never go away.

Image 2–
Violence and killing are all around us, it seems–the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and the United States. Here in Chicago, we are swamped by waves of killing–four fatal shootings over the New Year’s weekend and one hundred gunshot victims during the first ten days of 2016. Marchers in the streets protest the killing of black men at the hands of the police; others lie prostrate on the ground to portray the bodies that have been gunned down.

Image 3–
We don’t really see those who have been killed, because we protect ourselves with euphemisms and abstractions: casualties in war are referred to as “body counts”; civilian deaths are “collateral damage”; the wife of a man who is serving in Afghanistan recently objected to the term “boots on the ground”–her husband is a person, she said, not a boot. At home, the term is “victims.” Our language blocks our view.

In 1955, fourteen year-old Emmet Till was murdered in Mississippi, his body horribly disfigured. HIs mother insisted that his body be returned home to Chicago for a public funeral where the open coffin would reveal to all the condition of his body. She knew that no description in words could convey the effects of the beating and torture he had endured.

In December of 2009, photojournalist Lynsey Addario was embedded with a medevac team in Afghanistan. One night they got the call–a gravely wounded marine, his face macerated. Despite frenzied work by doctors and nurses at a field hospital, he died. Addario took photos of the soldier and the medical staff as they worked to keep him alive, and contacted his family. When he saw the photos, the father cherished them, almost tenderly. Two older sisters, in their late teens, said they did not want to see the photos, because they wanted to remember their brother in his happier times. The youngest sister declared that she definitely wanted to see the photos–“I want it to be real,” she said. “I want my brother to be real for me.” See–

We know instinctively that killing is not impersonal and abstract. That is why, when the bodies of fallen soldiers are returned to the United States, loved ones are on hand to receive them at Dover Air Force Base, and why the President of the United States visits privately with them. There were widespread protests in earlier years when the government banned photographers and reporters from covering the return of bodies from the Iraq war.

The current uproar in Chicago was occasioned by the release of the videos that show the unspeakable agony of the killing of Laquan McDonald and Philip Coleman. A picture is neither abstract nor impersonal. The picture tells us something profound about the situations in which seeing–with the eyes–takes primacy over words and hearing.

Image 4–
I’ve read recently about Wes Craven, who died last August. I never paid much attention to him, and I don’t know whether this blog reaches any of his devotees. He was the premiere director and writer of horror movies in the last half century. His legacy includesThe Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, A Nightmare on Elm on Street, and Scream. Although horror movies have never much appealed to me–since I was scared out of my mind by The Spiral Staircase when I was 13 years old–I’m brought to the realization that, in Craven’s hands, there are profound dimensions to these films.

When he was interviewed in 1980, Craven reflected on his work. Here is an excerpt:
“In my own mind were the mass of media inputs from the Vietnam War so that we were seeing reality of violence on our television sets, going into our theaters and seeing distorted, filtered reality. I set out to say simply, let’s not cut away and let’s not do violence that is entertaining. And I didn’t, you know, I simply did not cut away. And one stab did not do it and one shot did not do it. Once the violence began, the violence was treated as absolutely real. The audiences were, in a sense, tricked. They went in to a movie expecting to be entertained in the pure action or horror sense, where the blood is ketchup and the violence is simple and cartoonish. And instead we said, now that we’ve got you here, by the way, this is what violence is really like.”

Image 5–
Jamie Kalven, a freelance Chicago journalist, successfully pressed for release of the Laquan McDonald video. It was this video that resulted in the dismissal of our superintendent of police and calls for the state’s attorney and the mayor to resign. Kalven spoke here at Montgomery Place last Friday. He urged us to remember the current killings, not to forget as we move on to the next news cycle. “If we keep them before us, this moment of crisis can be a moment of transformation for the culture that allowed these deaths.”

I believe there is a linkage between these images–a truth to be acknowledged and a moral mandate to be acted upon. I’ll appreciate your comments.

(c) Phil Hefner 12 January 2016