Twenty years ago, the French philosopher, sociologist and political commentator, Jean Baudrillard wrote an essay entitled “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place”. Published in French and British Newspapers (Libération and The Guardian), it attracted huge criticism from people like Christopher Norris, who castigated Baudrillard and other postmodern intellectuals for arguing the Gulf conflict was unreal and essentially fictive. Some even labelled Baudrillard “a theoretical terrorist”. He was not, however, in denial that lives were lost nor that “more explosives were dropped in the two months of the Gulf War than the entire allied air attacks in World War II”. His central issue was one of interpretation and the presentation of the facts through a media lens – his concern was whether these events could be called a war.
For Baudrillard, the massive aerial bombardment of Iraq’s military and civil infrastructure was a war stripped of its passions and violence. Sanitised of foul imagery and “stripped bare by its technicians,” it was then re-clothed by the “artifices of electronics, as though with a second skin”. His argument was that this conflict was won in advance and that as the “war” was presented to the public entirely via the media this provided no real evidence of its existence - “direct transmission by CNN of real time information is not sufficient to authenticate a war”. His point was that the Gulf War “as we have been led to understand it” did not exist.
Unlike the gloss of the Gulf War, twenty years on there is a new preoccupation in society to experience the gruesomeness of war. In 2009, artist Jeremy Deller plucked a bombed-out vehicle from Baghdad’s debris to tour around America – the Guardian wrote that he was putting the violence of Iraq “right under our noses”. During the invasion of Iraq in 2003, we fed off bloggers like Salam Pax, who gave us the real-time, real-life trauma from Baghdad, and today our on-screen entertainment is often brought to us with the help of war-thirsty embedded journalists – who show us fear, danger, and how close death is.
Now, the Internet brings us as much blood and guts from the world’s trouble spots as we can manage. We hear of Osama Bin Laden’s death in Pakistan, but we want imagery, we want Osama’s remains, however gruesome. We want his head. Only this will make it real. Even inaccessible violence – such as that in the north of Sri Lanka in 2006 – barred from the gaze of media and international organizations – is snapped by camera phones and spread via YouTube. Like Bin Laden, the Tamil leader Prabhakaran’s caved-in head was clear for us all to see within hours of his death and now the horrors of spilt blood of the Tamil civilians is creeping onto our page.
The sensation of war and violence appears ever attractive to the news viewer. Whilst Baudrillard made a clear statement about the sanitisation of the Gulf War, the advent of competition between internet and TV news sees a battle for who can dig deeper into vile suffering. Starving children nolonger move us – the world’s cameras rest upon the bandaged head of a baby after a mortar attack, a limbless child, the close-up suffering of a grieving tear-stained widow. However, our taste for the ghastly is nothing compared with those in Asia. Even ten years ago the Sri-Lankan press carried a front page photo of a severed head of a suicide bomber (the caption reading “did you know this man”?), and a recent visit to Pakistan revealed that whilst the nation is fed up with being constantly associated with terrorism, its newspapers at home enjoy a continual stream of bombs, murders, and riots.
My recent Pakistani trip took me to the city of Karachi. In preparation, my web research revealed the charred remains of bomb blast victims, graphically recorded assassinations, and news of angry fire-starters. Even educated people told me I would be likely to be beheaded, kidnapped, and because of my interest in Islam and Pakistan I received hate mail from people telling me that I would be raped and killed (because that is what they do to Christians there). Nobody at all could be trusted.
To my surprise, the Pakistani city I discovered was bursting with generosity and concern – endless cups of tea and food offerings. Shopping malls that were home to Italian cafes, McDonalds and Next outlets. People going to work, kids going to school - not all of them to radical militant Madrassas, University students happily chatting and learning, pristine traffic cops efficiently directing traffic, eloquent business people, and young women who told me that “Karachi is a wonderful place to be a woman at the moment”. Not to mention miles of golden sand overlooking the Indian Ocean – filled with child footballers, bathing families and smiling, waving people whenever I took out my camera. Even in the Saddar district – a place I had been warned that I would not leave alive – we met many people who were not actually killing each other or engaged in bloody, violent acts. Mostly they were getting on with their lives – running fruit stalls, sweeping the streets, driving buses. We even encountered a heavy-set transvestite in a bright red sari, who quipped at my intrigue, “surely they have people like me in your country”? Pakistan has just become one of the first countries in the world to officially recognize a third gender. We even visited an elegant Catholic Church. My hunch is you won’t really get to hear about the churches in Pakistan unless they are blown up.
Like Baudrillard, I am not claiming that Pakistan is a country without its fair share of problems. Nor that Karachi itself is not home to some extreme acts of violence, and even plays host to celebrity terrorists. I am not claiming that explosives have not been loaded into vehicles or strapped to the mentally ill and triggered. Nor that people have died. However, the reality of this particular city and its 18 million inhabitants is highly complex and perhaps impossible to present through a single media face. The overwhelming media narrative, fuelled by the discovery of Bin Laden, is that Pakistan is a “hotbed” of evil – which a cynic might claim is a perception equally as manipulated or at best contrived as the media coverage was during the Gulf War.
Baudrillard’s fascination was not with the event of war or truth of it per se – but with both the notion of reality and the erosion of that reality caused by technology and media. Perhaps the view that Pakistan Is Full Of Terrorists is fabricated for our own single-narrative-loving, bloodthirsty pallets – we are simple media consumers addicted to the distraction of disaster. The French philosopher claimed that humans are naturally drawn towards a simulated version of reality – but has this gone too far? And can we control the simulation? As with the Gulf War, one cannot deny that lives have been lost and explosives done their worst in Pakistan, however, perhaps we should view the country not through the media lens of adrenalin-fuelled foreign correspondents, who tend to embed with Karachi ambulance drivers these days – but through other lenses. Surely we have the ability to shift that reality, simulated or not.
Photo Credit: Caroline Jaine