The new reality of war

IBy Amy Kamel It began Thursday at approximately 8:30 p.m. Eastern Time. The preview had come roughly 48 hours prior to it and whetted our hungry, supersized American appetites. In that two-day period, some of us prayed, some of us took to the streets, many waited in anxious, worried anticipation and others started the pregame show, and prepared to reap the benefits of … no, not just the war, but the never-before-seen, the ultimate, the one and only, ladies and gentlemen, the mother of all reality television series – “Survivor: on location in Baghdad.”

But this reality show is different in many wonderful ways. First of all, we don’t know how long the series will last, which of course only adds to the excitement. Second, you never know how someone will get “voted” off. That’s right. This one will always keep you on your toes. Will Scuds, or maybe even “friendly” fire vote off the actors, or will they give their opponents a real run for their oil … (uh, I mean, money)?

Direct from the killing zone to the comfort of your living rooms, to the fabulous aromas of your kitchens, and to the warmth and safety of your bedrooms, ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC and of course FOX bring you almost incessant, up-to-the minute coverage of anything exciting happening in the city under siege! And for those rather dull moments of war (which entail the planning of striking, as opposed to the actual striking itself) the hosts of the show will bring you exclusive interviews with Johnny Doe and his pals from the infantry.

Reporting live from behind barricades, your hosts will interview soldiers so those of us “civilians” here in America can experience the perils of war without really living it like our Iraqi counterparts. So tune in to find out what Johnny’s wife and children think about what’s going on, whether or not the other participants think Johnny will be quick enough to get on his gas mask if the need should arise, and if he’s confident he and his buddies will soon be able to say, officially, that they’re on the winning team!

I heard this will be the most televised war ever, and guess what, America, you can’t choose to not see it even if you wanted to, unless, of course, you turn off the television. The bombardment is happening on two fronts: one in Iraq, and one here at home. The perversity of it, however, is that we get to experience the “awe” simply by watching the “shock.” And as we stare at our screens, broadcasting live, flickering lights and massive explosions, few of us will realize that some of those pretty lights, those fireworks (that we have been told are heralding freedom) are maiming and killing not only the guilty but the innocent too. Yes, for every bomb that falls on the city of Baghdad, there is a trembling child of a poor family that wasn’t able to flee the city before the television show began, and he is crying and she is scared, and they are living a reality that should never be the subject of anyone’s entertainment … but it certainly seems to be. These are the unknown stars of a new kind of Fear Factor, and this reality show is so real we can’t even comprehend it as such. Because when these “actors” do get voted off, they won’t be updating what happened “after the show” on Entertainment Tonight or on Oprah. When it’s done, they’re done.

On Friday, the local news interviewed people around Minneapolis as they tipped back a few at area bars, staring at “March Madness” and the “Bombing of Baghdad” juxtaposed on television screens. One unfortunate soul even had the audacity to say it was simply “something to do” as the camera panned away to tables piled with beer and french fries or whatever they’re being called these days.

As I turned off the television, too disgusted to continue watching, I thought about why wanting to see it all seemed so wicked and wrong. For some reason “The Accused” came to my mind and I thought about the key scene in which Jodi Foster gets raped. The rape itself is unquestionably disturbing, but I think what really troubles, or should be troubling to the viewer, is the group of other men in the bar who intently watch the violation, unequivocally transforming the act into a form of entertainment.

Similarly, if we look at films in which capital punishment is shown the uneasy and awesome feeling comes from not the execution itself, but from the onlookers who visually (although perhaps not morally) support and accept what is happening before their eyes. It is this juxtaposition, at the event, of the passivity and stillness of one (the onlooker), with the resistance and pain of another (the accused). And the lack of words, of dialogue – which are emblems of a civilized world – the absence of any means by which to reconcile the silence of the one and the other, is at the core of a brutal regression of humanity; a regression to a time before empathy became noble.

It is one thing to engage justly or unjustly in a war, it is indeed another to sadistically exploit the minute details of someone else’s calamity in order to boost a network’s ratings. For years television has utilized various aspects of people’s lives in order to create new shows. We’ve seen diversity from the married couples like the Cleavers, to remarried couples like the Bradys to shows about single life and shows “about nothing.” We’ve seen “Cops” in action and we’ve tried to unravel “Unsolved Mysteries.” In short, television has allowed us in many respects to turn life into a game. Unfortunately, now I am debating whether or not this gratuitous, live coverage is also turning death into one.

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