Our Saddam picture - too shocking?

The case for the defence

Dear Sir,

After reading the "anti" mail regarding the image of Saddam Hussein's death, I feel compelled to write, looking at the substance of your commentary.

You are absolutely right when you call the tech evangelists "ambulance chasers" - I still remember the pinheaded observations that New Orleans would have fared Katrina better, if only they'd had more Wi-Fi.

The image of Saddam dead is worth more than a hundred thousand words. Death is the great cultural equalizer - even the most yippie technologist will someday meet the same mortal demise as the most brutal dictator.

The picture shows, in all its horror, the heart of human darkness. This is intolerable to the Web-2.0 crowd, as it flies in the face of their notions of benign collectivism. How can wikis stop war? Why can't revenge killings be done away with by blogging?

Knowledge is also a great equalizer. There is a disturbing trend, typified especially by the techno-utopians, of wholesale loss of knowledge relating to things from the pre-internet era. At the very least, they would like to vote on the accuracy of it, since fact and opinion are interchangeable and reality-neutral in such a mindset.

This would not be a problem, except that much of the pattern the tech evangelicals are following is not new - it has been clearly established by extremists of all stripes throughout history.

For instance, take the "Project for a New American Century," the lobbying group who pushed for the very scenario depicted in the controversial photograph. Through groupthink, committee meetings, historical revisionism, blending of facts with opinions, and unswervingly forceful self-righteousness, they managed to change the dialog in an entire country, thanks to the public hysteria after 9/11.

I would argue that such groups could be labelled "demo-utopians," for their belief that the simple introduction of democracy, even at the point of a gun, can act as a universal panacea for social ills. Obviously, both mindsets, if allowed to set policy, result in disaster, sometimes on a grand scale.

The only difference between techno and right-wing demo-utopians such as "PNAC" is their delivery method-- while techno-utopians rely on obscure technologies with limited appeal and availability, the politicos are much more effective with "old media." Talk radio, direct mail, telephone calls, and newspaper articles were all critical parts of the overarching strategy to drum up support for the Iraq war.

Many of the technologists are aghast at the situation in the world today, which is only correct of them. There is a great danger however, that through their own self-righteous dogma, they fail to see any solutions outside of those which can be coded with AJAX components. They make the same mistake as the neocons-- starting with a solution and looking for problems to apply it to.

The world is a complex, and oftentimes horrific, place. The problems which the human species is being confronted with are multifaceted and multigenerational. Utopians of all stripes would do well to evaluate facts and reality in an empirical manner - or the consequences of people's "really good ideas" can only lead to more YouTube execution videos.

Dave, Colorado

Final word from John Stirling, with a thoughtful Letter of The Week - of which this is just a part:

I'm afraid I'm unlikely to get Flame Of The Week for this one, but whilst I do agree that the information evangelists are often misguided, in this case I wholeheartedly approve of the release of this video, and this sort of thing in general. Saddam was mostly a bad man, often a very bad man, but actually he was a creature of our allies, handed his power, and his power maintained for years by one of our closest allies (heck an ex colony). Quite frankly if that process of building him up had been on regular unofficial YouTube tapes then it is likely that we would not be exactly where we are. I think it's also a reasonable assumption that if the questionable practices of that same close ally had not trained and equipped another enemy of the west, who would now appear to be pretty much most wanted then we wouldn't have those problems either, and a nice dose of openess by way of embarrassing video disclosure would have certainly made that situation a little trickier to develop.

Pretty much any modern problem can be traced back to the bad prior actions of the other side, even Hitler, or rather the environment that allowed him to power was a product of the treaty of Versailles (which we wrote). I am not a hater of my own culture, I love it, I don't even regard Empire as wholly bad, but I do passionately believe in clearing up your own mess, and facing responsibility, which is something that our leaders, and we as voters have signally failed to do.

I also believe that acting honourably is not 'impractical' but is actually supremely pragmatic. Difficult in the short term, but pays dividends in the long run. By facing the Iraq war in general, and the end of Iraq's (and the CIA's for many years) dictator in particular in close up (if grainy) detail we cannot avoid facing the consequences of our actions as we have done before, and eventually this will modify our behaviour towards acting in a way which we can be proud of when it is inevitably shown to the world.

Long live inappropriate disclosure - when it comes to unveiling political actions there really is no such thing as too much information. Perhaps we ought to start a campaign to get people complaining to broadcasters, insisting they disclose more uncomfortable truth, rather than less, especially when it's uncomfortable or offensive.

John Stirling


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