Since Hamas’ attack on Israel on October 7, many have gone down the internet rabbit hole and found themselves watching horrific footage of the attack and its aftermath, the details of which need not be recounted here. Images of war and suffering have the power to elicit strong emotions and shape public opinion. But these images raise ethical questions.
One of the first examples of the power of war photography was after the Civil War battle at Antietam, when photographer Mathew Brady held an exhibit in Manhattan titled “The Dead of Antietam.” A New York Times reviewer wrote of the exhibit that “Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along the streets, he has done something very like it.”
Imagery of war can elicit powerful emotion and encapsulate the broader horror. The singular image of a man in business attire plunging to his death against the backdrop of one of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, captured the terror of the day. Powerful images can promote or change public opinion. Joe Rosenthal’s photo of Marines raising the American flag on Iwo Jima was the centerpiece of a war bonds campaign. Images from concentration camps at the end of World War II in Germany, of stacked emaciated bodies and zombie-like survivors, showed the immensity of German crimes. The more recent photograph of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi’s lying face-down on the Turkish shore brought attention to the plight of refugees. By the same token images have worked against governmental goals. In Vietnam, the execution of Nguyen Van Lem and photos of the dead at My Lai helped turn American opinion against the war. The photos from the Abu Ghraib showing American soldiers abusing prisoners in Iraq undermined U.S. credibility.
Governments took note of how images can be used to manipulate public opinion and thus displayed or restricted them based on their needs. The Germans created and filmed the model camp Theresienstadt to claim they were providing good care to Jewish deportees, while simultaneously committing an extermination campaign against the Jews. During the Gulf War in 1991, the U.S. restricted access for the press, and photos such as one of an incinerated Iraqi soldier were not immediately circulated. Similarly, President Bush restricted photography of the flag draped coffins of American soldiers killed in Iraq.
The use of these types of images raise a number of ethical questions. At a basic level, the photographer or videographer should present the image as is, without manipulation. One of the contributing photographers to Mathew Brady’s Antietam exhibit, Alexander Gardner, was criticized for moving a dead soldier’s body to take the photo titled ‘Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter.’
Images should not exploit those who are already suffering, and should respect the privacy and dignity of the victim, who may not have wanted themselves to be seen in that moment or condition. There is also the impact on the family. After Nick Berg was beheaded in Iraq, his father Michael Berg collapsed on camera when he discovered that the video of his son’s beheading was circulating on the internet, because he did not want the execution made public.
The Torah, in Deuteronomy chapter 21, commands that “If someone guilty of a capital offense is put to death and their body is exposed on a pole, you must not leave the body hanging on the pole overnight. Be sure to bury it that same day, because anyone who is hung on a pole is under God’s curse. You must not desecrate the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance.” The commentator Rashi opines that leaving the body hanging would be “a degradation of the Divine King, for man is made in His image and the Israelites are His children.” This logic should apply to all humans, as Genesis 1:27 states, “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them.”
The Torah’s approach stands in marked contract with at least one empire in biblical times. The Assyrian Empire was centered in the region of today’s northern Iraq, and came to rule over an area stretching from Persia to Egypt. It dominated the region through extreme cruelty, leading the biblical prophet Nahum to say “All who hear the news about you clap their hands at your fall, for who has not felt your endless cruelty?” The Assyrians displayed their cruelty in large stone reliefs in their palaces, featuring gruesome images of their victims. The image shown here, with a human head hanging on a hook or branch is a segment of a larger relief in which the Assyrian king is being served a meal while around him human heads hang in the branches.
Beyond the victims, there is the matter of the what effect the images can have on the viewer, either desensitizing one to violence or creating anxiety or fear that can linger. Instilling fear would potentially serve the purpose the perpetrators intended.
After Emmett Till, age 14, was brutally murdered in 1955 in Mississippi for the crime of offending a white woman, his mother refused attempts to have her son buried in Mississippi and instead had his body returned to Chicago for burial. She insisted on an open casket, so all could see Emmett’s swollen and disfigured face and experience the savagery of Southern racism. In her words, “I just wanted the world to see.” Photos of Emmett were shared widely, and his funeral is considered a watershed moment in the civil rights movement.
As in the case of Emmett Till, Israel is releasing more images and videos of the assault to provide proof or garner sympathy for its cause. But the average viewer should question their own need to see these images, whether or not viewing them will have an effect on their opinion and if it is needed to understand the situation, weighed against respecting the deceased, their families and one’s own psychological state. The Torah’s opinion on the dignity of the departed would suggest the exercise of care.