Images of Gaddafi’s death highlight visual distrust in the digital age

If anything could humanize Moammar Gaddafi, it was the before-and-after drama that emerged as images of the fallen dictator flooded the Internet and cable news. One early bit of data pinging out of Sirte looked like a screen grab from a cellphone video, filled with telltale markings that suggest but don’t assure authenticity — a time-and-date stamp, battery-level indicator, elapsed-time bar and play button on the bottom. The dead Gaddafi was seen with half-open eyes, as if staring at the camera, bloodied but ashen, looking hauntingly like himself, but with the odd, theatrical mask of a white-faced geisha. It felt real, but it had a strange, too-concentrated emotion.

No matter how loathsome, a powerless person looking straight into the camera almost inevitably becomes sympathetic. The images of the dead Gaddafi were reminiscent of a photo of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu taken after his hasty execution in 1989. Captured with his eyes open, the gray-haired tyrant looked natty in a red tie and blue jacket, and strangely handsome in a way that almost erased the memory of decades of brutal rule. It was an accidental envoi, an uncanny postmortem appeal.

Anyone new to the story Thursday, seeing just that image of Gaddafi’s lifeless face, with memories of the fake digital death mask of Osama bin Laden that surfed the same networks of information and falsehood, had reason to be skeptical. But there was also video of what appeared to be Gaddafi’s bloodied body, filmed in the crowds-and-power style of accidental verite, the jerky camera, the bad focus, the manic efforts to frame and hold the image as humanity surges around the event.

Authenticity in the digital age is all about the feel of the image, the drama of how it seems to have been made. Anything can be faked in our wag-the-dog world, but it’s hard to fake this well this quickly. An image feels true not because it looks true — that’s easy to do — but because it arrives in a way that feels true.

The need of angry Iraqis to see Saddam Hussein’s execution might lead one to doubt the truth of the grainy film apparently captured during the execution. But it felt true because it seemed authentically purloined. Perhaps the bloody face of the terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, triumphantly displayed by the U.S. military after he was killed in 2006, was mocked up with Photoshop. But the beleaguered Bush administration’s ham-fisted effort to celebrate Zarqawi’s death like a war trophy — enlarging the photo, matting and framing it for a news conference — somehow made the image seem more genuine.

More is more, and speed matters in the authenticity game of digital imagery. The self-reinforcing surge of Gaddafi images and video erased doubts. News Web sites and television called it for death, the headlines went big, the scrolling ticker was scrubbed of equivocations.

But al-Jazeera was also showing Gaddafi alive, in video apparently taken just before he was killed or had expired from his wounds. The flood of information on television always confuses our sense of tense, but this simultaneity of death and life changed everything. The death footage was no longer about forensics, proving that a bloodthirsty man has been killed. An image of a corpse is a data point. An image of a living man juxtaposed with an image of his corpse is a drama. Everything in between is left to the imagination, and in that gap even a thug whose monomania brought death to people as far away as a small town in Scotland and a discotheque in Germany can suddenly seem human. Split screens on television filled in the gap: crowds of young men, pumped with the ecstasy of victory, tearing at the fallen regime’s green flag with knives, shredding pictures, firing guns into the air.

How did Gaddafi die? It’s not hard to imagine.

The missing images, paradoxically, become iconic. That gap, if it remains a gap, is almost assuredly being pondered in a sleek, brooding, hilltop palace above Damascus where another murderous leader hangs on to power, by nervous elites in Bahrain and an erratic old man in Yemen. But the gap that now stands in for the unknown manner of Gaddafi’s death will also be a volatile part of the founding mythology of the new Libya. Will it be a nation of laws or passion? Order or retribution?

The speed with which the Gaddafi drama unfolded, the rapidity with which life-and-death images arrived, the chaos of their cinematography, and the uncontrollable speed of a crowd of angry men all reinforced an underlying sense that there is a horrifying truth yet unseen.

Judging an angry crowd, exhausted by oppression and months of revolution, is like judging the weather. What happened between Gaddafi alive and Gaddafi dead has happened thousands of times, all over the world, for millennia. Watering the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants is as much a part of United States history as it is now a part of the new Libyan nation.

We have, of course, mostly forgotten the flinty words of Jefferson, who wrote about tyrants and liberty in an age before photography, with its power to change the valence of man’s past and keep his most pathetic moment forever in the present. It used to be that time, amnesia and ideology helped a nation forget the oldest rule of politics: In the beginning was violence. But that was before the indelible, perpetual infinity of the digital image.

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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