Must brown people be martyred for Americans to be motivated?

by Guest Contributor Tami, originally published at What Tami Said

On May 13, 2008, I wrote:

Saturday night I was watching as CNN covered the tragedy in Myanmar (Burma). I was well aware of the devastation caused by Nagris, the cyclone that ripped the country apart. What shocked me was the graphic nature of CNN’s report. There were bodies and bodies and more bodies–Burmese men, women, even children, dead, bloated, discolored and rotting in the Southeast Asian sun; arms and legs akimbo as if their owners had been tossed like rag dolls. I know this is what death looks like, especially when it takes place in a poor country where the people have been colonized, militarized and rocked by ethnic strife and drug trafficking. But I watched the television and couldn’t help thinking that this video desecration of the already desecrated was another example of how American culture sees brown people as somehow less human. Read more

I am thinking about this again because of Neda Agha Soltani, the young Iranian woman who was gunned down during political protests in Tehran. According to CNN, the martyred woman’s name, which reportedly means “voice” or “calling” in Persian, has become a rallying cry for those protesting fraudulent elections in Iran. This post isn’t about how Neda’s life and death have affected her people, though. It is how her death is being used in this country that is making me uncomfortable.

Neda’s horrific death was captured on video and is all over the Web, including several high-profile blogs and You Tube. Even CNN.com has linked to the unedited video, though the news outlet ran a pixilated version on air. The video shows the young woman, clad in jeans and bright, white tennis shoes, collapsing to the ground, seconds after being shot in the heart. As her father and others attend to her, Neda’s brown eyes seem to focus momentarily on the camera before shifting, glazing. Blood begins to pour from her mouth and nose, covering her face. Her life is gone. You can see it when it goes. It is shocking. If you do not care about what is going on now in Iran, you will after seeing Neda die in the street with her father’s screams growing louder and louder.

But why does the Western world (and here I refer mostly to the dominant culture, not marginalized groups) have to see these things to be shaken from its complacency?

We did not need to see bloodied bodies to understand the horror of Columbine. After the first live footage of people in the World Trade Center jumping to their deaths, those gruesome images disappeared. It was too much. We don’t need to see carnage to understand horror when the bodies involved are mostly white. To show brutal images of the dead is generally seen as unseemly and disrespectful. Consider the uproar when some newspapers published images of a dead American soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu in the early 90s. But deaths like Neda’s we feel we must see, need to see. What does it say when we feel squeamish and protective about the deaths of some, but not others?

On blog threads, commenters are thanking bloggers for posting the video of Neda’s death. A Jezebel commenter said:

…people need to see this. This is not some voyeuristic irrelevant video; it is wholly representative of the kind of brutality that the government is trying to stifle communication about right now. Her story needs to be told.

Another offered:

I showed it to my husband and he got really upset and said he didn’t need to see stuff like that. I told him that he did need to see it, and understand, and that everyone needs to see and know what is really going on over there. I can’t stop crying. Read more…

I understand these readers’ sentiments, but why? Why must we see an Iranian woman die on a city street in order to understand the gravity of the country’s political upheaval? Why must we see brown bodies bloated and floating to give a damn about the tsunami in Myanmar or the hurricane in New Orleans? Why did we have to see Oscar Grant killed in cold blood by police on a BART platform to talk about racism and the justice system? Why did it take the mangled body of 14-year-old Emmitt Till to give America an inkling of the tyranny and danger that black folks faced in the South every day?

I think Americans are fetishizing video of Neda Soltani’s death in a way they would not if she were a young, blonde, American college student shot down on an American street. We do not need to see the lifeless bodies of those women in order to care for them. But people like Neda owe access to their deaths so Americans can access their own humanity.

Isn’t there something wrong with this?