Notes from an Insomniac

“You can watch things about the Holocaust. Why can’t you watch this?”

That’s a 14 year old student, talking about the suspension of three high-school teachers who in one way or another helped make the Nicholas Berg tape available to their students. It seems to me that the lad or lassie has a good point or two. I’ve long been struck by the illogic that makes it acceptable for primetime network TV to run uncut versions of Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan but not, say,  Straw Dogs or Blue Velvet. What’s the difference? If sex, violence, and profanity are bad for children on Sunday night, then it stands to reason that they’re bad for children on every night of the week. The underlying assumption – and the justification that ABC relied on to air the movies without protest – is that Spielberg’s epics are so “important” they somehow transcend the standards that ordinarily govern such things, but that’s merely eyewash for the blind. Forgetting about kids for a second, most adults can’t distinguish between the intentions of people like Steven Spielberg and Sam Peckinpah, and in any case no one can argue, not on the basis of the films anyhow, that the two Spielberg movies are somehow more responsible or life-affirming than the Lynch or Peckinpah films. The fact that Spielberg’s movies “really happened” gives them cachet and a built-in sense of importance, even if it’s the same illusionary virtue which the Coen Brothers lampooned in Fargo. It’s probably some combination of their historical rootedness and the fact that they’re “trying to show” some finite, high-minded condition (e.g., the sacrifices of “the Greatest Generation” or the horrors of war) that makes Spielberg’s films more palatable to mainstream tastes and values than Blue Velvet, whose messy questions and emotions make its unruly elements harder to justify in a simple topic sentence

Concentration camp footage has been readily accessible as long as I can remember that much of the student’s argument is undeniable. (I first saw it when Judgment at Nuremberg was still in the theaters, and the sight of the bulldozers and marbled bodies made me shoot a startled glance at my mother, who clearly wasn’t expecting it either.) The question is, how (apart from privacy issues) does footage of Dachau differ from the video of Nick Berg’s beheading, and should people – particularly young ones  be protected from whatever those differences are? The Berg video is terrifying on a pure animal level, but that’s the nature of witnessing violence as it occurs: the right bar-fight can knot your stomach with dread, and I once saw a friend – a pretty tough boy from Louisiana who’s fairly unfeeling when it comes to animals – reduced to a squirming mass by just the first five minutes of Georges Franju’s Le sang des bêtes. (As bad as it is, think how much worse the concentration camp footage would be if it’d been shot, not after the camps’ liberation, but while they were still performing as designed.) In this post-Columbine era our concern about 14 year olds probably has less to do with protecting their innocence (an impossible task in any case) than with not feeding them destructive ideas, yet I think to anyone who isn’t already troubled the spirit-killing sound of Nick Berg’s screams would serve as a deterrence, not an incitement, to violence.

 I say all this and yet I’m far more undecided on the question than I sound. (I don’t even know if there is a right answer.) I’ve yet to talk to another adult who’s seen the video, and the vast majority of people I’ve discussed it with adamantly refuse to look at it. It’s easy to sympathize with that impulse when I’m talking one-on-one with someone, but I find it less comprehensible as a societal impulse. I watched the video because I felt that if I’m really going to do this war, there’s no comfortable place to draw the line. A chronic and totally justified complaint in American society, going back at least to the ’89 Panama invasion, has revolved around the scrubbed and sunny brand of warfare that the Pentagon presents to us. As we grind away at our jobs or take a walk on a sunny day, it’s hard to remember at any given hour all the activities that we’ve set into motion or that are being undertaken in our name. Nick Berg’s death fills in a part of that larger picture, and in that sense it feels unchivalrous to turn away just to preserve my tender equilibrium.

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