May 15, 2004

Sacrifice: another iconic war image

A still from the video of the decapitation of Nick Berg, an American civilian in Iraq, purportedly carried out by Al Qaeda:

More pictures of the beheading here and here. The video can be found here though not at work. More extensive links to the video can be found here.

What puzzles me is that Nick Berg is wearing an orange jump suit. Is that not standard US prison wear at Guantanamo Bay?


What does that signify? I have no idea.

How are people trying to make sense of this beheading. John Quiggin's comments are here.

Catherine Lumby tries to make sense of the "horrific images from Abu Ghraib, the United States-run military prison where Iraqi prisoners were tortured and humiliated by their Western captors" by going back to Goya's Disasters of War, where Goya set down the unspeakable cruelty and suffering that attended the 19th-century Spanish uprising against Napoleon I's occupation of Spain.

Lumby refers Hannah Arendt's "the banality of evil" to make sense of the shock:

"The truly shocking thing about these images is that ordinary people took them with the apparent intention of showing them around, perhaps even emailing them on to friends or family.They are, in some primal sense, a bizarre inversion of all those smiling partygoers and contented couples who populate billboards advertising the joys of having a camera in your mobile phone."

The significant point is that perpetrators of the prison torture were ínormalí people, ordinary human beings. Lumby adds that:

"...we would all do well to remember that these images show ordinary people behaving under the extraordinary pressures of war. They are images of what men and women can do. And, in this sense, they are images which implicate us all. That, after all, is the urgent truth of Goya's etchings: human beings are capable of terrible things; there's nothing metaphysical about evil."

Suprisingly, Lumby makes no mention of the images of the video depicting the decapitation of Nick Berg:


When we do, we make contact with the practice of sacrifice, human sacrifice. Ritualized human sacrifice as with the Aztecs or the Catholic Church (witches). So it is tied up with the sacred. I appreciate that to modern sensibilities the immense level of human sacrifice in both of those societies seems an abomination. But we can have a disturbing and confronting conception of the sacred: the sacred realm as a realm of danger: of eroticism, sacrifice excess.

Bataille enable us to understand this conception of sacrifice as he associates the sacred with excess: that which in some sense exceeds the rational social, political and economic structures constructed to contain excess. The sacred is to be found in the violent, transgressive, excessive, cruel domain, that has to be socially repressed or controlled. One way of control was designed by the Aztecs. Those captured in war by the Aztecs were sacrificed in place of the individuals of their particular culture. An immense symbolic tie was created between the victim of the sacrifice and those for whom the victim was a substitute.
There is more on Bataille and sacrifice over at philosophical conversations.


Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at May 15, 2004 05:50 AM | TrackBack

It won't be there for very long, but this picture of an Iraqi prisoner freed from Abu Ghraib wears a similar (same?) orange jumpsuit.

Posted by: nardo on May 15, 2004 08:09 PM

I finally had the courage to see the video of Nick Berg. It was truly disturbing to see the torture, cruelty,and killing of any human being. My heart and prayers goes out to the family and friends of Nick Berg. It is so unfortunate that as humans from any religion, culture, country should be treated as such. I hope and pray that one day that we could all live as one and in harmony. But, for now this type of devastation, mistreatment, killing goes on each and everyday.

Much love and aloha,


Posted by: Nancy A. Ignacio on May 17, 2004 02:32 PM

I haven't seen the video yet(stilling looking), but these gruesome stills here are pretty cool though. Have you ever thought about marketing them? Sales would be very impresive, i believe. Cheers!

Posted by: Damos Abadon on May 22, 2004 12:24 AM

Hi Gary,
I would like to ask you: when you choose an image for publication on your web site, where do you draw the line? As much as I enjoy your often quite fascinating selection and critical thinking I was quite startled when I came across this posting. I had made a personal conscious choice not to see the video of the execution, and would have appreciated it had you given a warning...

Posted by: on June 7, 2004 11:42 PM

I haven't seen the video yet(stilling looking), but these gruesome stills here are pretty cool though. Have you ever thought about marketing them? Sales would be very impresive, i believe. Cheers!

Posted by: alena on July 8, 2004 11:49 AM

i saw the video and i say bush better make sure that the al-queda pay for it. personally i think that we should kill each and every one that is a uniform in iraq. no questions at all send the fear of death to all them people. then they wont have a chance to do any unibombs. they approach we shoot first ask questions later. and then bring our troopers home. im not over there so i dont know the "real deal." but we have to finish what we started. if we pull back now we be remembered as a bunch of chumps. TO THOSE WHO THINK THE PHOTOS ARE COOL I WISH THE VIDEO WAS OF YOU ASSHOLES

Posted by: corey d on July 11, 2004 02:06 PM

I can only say this; i've seen some bad things as a marine, and as a civilian. I was truely taken aback. I shouldnt have watched it. And even sat in silence for almost 2 hours after doing so. God be with his familiy. SEMPER FI

Posted by: Steven on August 27, 2004 09:29 AM

They 'will' get whats coming to them...alah ahkbar! ass!

Posted by: G on October 2, 2004 03:56 AM

When I get outta high school..i wanted to be a Navy SEAL...Now, Just so i can kick their(and their ancestors) asses...then let God sort them out.

Posted by: Joe on October 4, 2004 04:44 AM

its america that was rong to invade in the first place

Posted by: sean on October 9, 2004 04:48 AM

Dont ever think for once that this war is wrong! It might be for oil, but it is also to kill these terrorists. I hope they find these people who are beheading everyone! Dont quetion them torture them make them tell us were Osama bin laden is. And when when find osama we should behead him on national TV, that will make these basterds feel the same way we do about Nick Berg and the other beheadings.

Posted by: john on January 27, 2005 06:07 PM
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