The Magazine

No Trophies for Terrorists

Israel should keep cameras away from scenes of carnage.

Aug 12, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 46 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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AT SOME POINT ISRAELIS are likely to start asking themselves: Why should we continue to let TV reporters and news photographers take pictures of terrorist murder scenes? Of dead and maimed Israelis, shocked bystanders, grieving families, blood in the streets?

Who gave TV cameras the right to be there in the first place? Exactly why should we allow the shoving of cameras in the faces of suffering people?

In any place at any time, it is intolerable that a hurt or grieving person should be required to run the TV-camera obstacle course for the gratification of spectacle-aficionados. In Israel today it is intolerable times ten, because we have every reason to assume that some Palestinians do not merely watch, they gloat. Surely the least any society owes to the wounded and their stricken friends and families is to shield them from cameramen catering to this bloodlust. After a terror-bombing we see the wounded rushed past on stretchers in their ripped-up clothing, covered in blood and dazed with pain--but with dignity intact, and so they do their best to shield their faces from the leering lenses. The intrepid cameramen must be proud.

Israel (in any case) is at war, and what could justify the bizarre practice of showing the enemy exactly what his latest attack has accomplished? In April 1941, the British government discontinued its weekly announcements of shipping lost to the Nazis. Thereafter announcements were made monthly. It seemed unnecessary to keep the Nazis absolutely up-to-date on their progress in strangling Britain. Churchill wrote to his Minister for Information: "When the comment is made that we are afraid to publish weekly because, as you say, 'we desire to cover up,' . . . the answer should be, 'Well, that is what we are going to do anyway.' Friends and enemies will no doubt put on their own interpretations."

More is at stake, though, than honor and dignity and wartime prudence. There is reason to believe that proto-terrorists aren't merely thrilled when they see Jews murdered and other Jews undone by grief; they are inspired. Such video sequences are the trophies of the TV age. The world's philosophers have fooled around with TV but haven't put into simple words TV's fundamental role nowadays in ratifying reality. If you haven't seen it on TV, it hasn't quite happened.

We know how important videotapes and TV have become in various parts of Arab society. We have heard about Al Jazeera. We know about videotaped messages from master terrorists, and videotaped murders. We can remember a generation back to the audio cassettes recorded in Paris that helped sweep Khomeini to power in Iran.

Suppose there were no more photos or videos of terrorist crime scenes; suppose they were banned under Israeli law. Suppose relatives and responsible authorities were notified immediately, and everyone else had to guess. Israel is a small, talkative country, and word would get out right away. Proto-terrorists would hear all about the latest attack--but their cherished trophies would be missing. No videotaped misery to celebrate. Mere word of mouth, which is pale by comparison. Words are powerful (or used to be), but the modern terrorist wants video.

Of course Israel is a democracy, where the government must report and be held accountable. But it could report in words instead of pictures. It could report weeks after the fact. All rational people accept limitations on their right to know in time of war.

TERROR GROUPS would no doubt respond at first by boasting about ever-increasing death tolls. But without pictures, the actual crimes would gradually dematerialize in proto-terrorist minds. Perhaps they'd be gassed up into great, zeppelin-sized myths--but myths are less inspiring now that they must compete with TV footage. Of course, suicide murderers who crave admission to the super-hot whorehouse on high have a reason to kill that is unrelated to TV coverage. But prospective murderers do want to be famous, like everybody else; we have seen their suicide notes, videotaped for worldwide distribution. If the great deed itself is not going to be on TV after all, if your posthumous career as a TV personality is going to be cruelly curtailed--does it still pay to kill and die? Not all potential murderers are the same. But if even one decided that, on second thought . . .