Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Oh, internet, you numb me so

To paraphrase John Safran, I've been a-thinkin' about horrible things. Not the kind of things to give pause to potential clients of my babysitting business should I decide to launch one, nor the kind of things to make PETA activists choke on their soy flakes. No, these horrible things are rather more global in scale and impact.

This morning I watched footage of an air assault on an urban cluster in Iraq. Two Apache helicopters were circling a specific zone in Baghdad when a group of what were claimed to be insurgents appeared onscreen. Requests were made to 'engage', eventually granted. What followed may have had little impact on an 18 year old me, but the 30 year old me was at least moved to write this.

The so called insurgents are sighted and it is claimed, by a gunner presumably, that the targets were armed, though this is grossly unclear in the footage. These insurgents shuffle about displaying little apparent intent to act in any meaningful way, hostile or otherwise. One man, later revealed to be a Reuters journalist, is clearly seen carrying a camera. These men did not have the air of militants; a milling cafe-going crowd might more aptly describe their demeanour. Once the go ahead was given, the men onscreen disappeared in a hail of gunfire, smoke and shrapnel, occasionally visible through the undulating mass of debris, this a cause for more gunfire. Through the clearing smoke, a journalist (there were two at the scene) can be seen crawling, obviously wounded, to the footpath beside the street in which the others, compatriots or no, lie dead. At length, a van appears and its occupants attempt to retrieve the wounded journalist.

The gunner/pilot, quivering with audible eagerness, again requests permission to engage. A few short moments pass, during which time the injured journalist is bundled into the van. Eventually, the order is given and the gunner opens fire on the van, slaughtering the occupants and wounding two children inside.

The style of footage and the outcome is far from unique and is in fact utterly familiar to anyone who has watched a news service of any kind since the early part of the 90s. What is different, to my ears at least, was the conversational detachment from the men that wrought this numbing violence. In fact, it was not simply the detachment from their actions, but the type of detachment that struck me.

It occurs to me that the likelihood of those men being younger than or of the same age as myself is high. That occurrence developed into the realization that these men are not the hardened war veterans depicted in any fiction; these were guys who, in all possibility, had played the same games, seen the same films and experienced the same desensitization to violent imagery via the internet that I had (and have since renounced).

As laughs were exchanged about landing a shot through the vehicle's windshield, I considered their mindset. Surely, performing such tasks requires a certain level of detachment, else when the time came to act, rigor and regimentation might give way to the encumberance of empathy and the moment could be lost. That aside though, something in their manner suggested contentment, enjoyment even; a perverse eagerness from the men in the air to murder the men on the ground. It was as though they were playing a video game, let's say Call of Duty (ho ho). Having played an inordinate amount of COD myself, I can attest to the satisfaction of landing an airstrike in a nest of opposing players. This, though, was real. Those men died, as it turns out, for no defensible reason. The men who did the killing seemed so removed from their actions, so casual in their subsequent banter, they may as well have been adding to a killstreak or dropping a care package on the head of some noob. I can't pretend to know the minds of those that find themselves in such a position.

The argument about games as violence cocoons is flawed in any number of ways and I strenuously argue against it if queried, but, if only briefly, I was faced with the harsh reality that mirrors those combative virtual excursions and the tenuous but possibly all too real link between the two.

"Oh yeah, look at those dead bastards."

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