Unable to look away

Oct 30, 2011, 07:45 IST | Paromita Vohra

Even as many began to settle into a sense of routine over the conflict in Libya, glazing over things in a fashion people tend to about most ongoing conflicts, images of Gaddafi's death were smeared across our screens, demonstrating what it means to be hunted down like a dog.

Illustration/ Jishu Dev Malakar

We felt angry at being forced into the pornography of those broadcasts, angry at being unable to look away from what we'd rather not see. Human rights discussion lists posted links to frame by frame analyses of a cellphone camera capture that suggested Gaddafi had been sodomised with a knife minutes before he was killed. The corpses of Gadaffi and his son were displayed in a meat locker, where more people gathered to look and take pictures on their cell phones.

Suddenly the revolution was in doubt, especially for the very nations that had assisted in this battle, bombing Gaddafi's convoy and leading to his capture.

Yet, what did we expect? A man who went from creating a socialist garden of benefits and prosperity for many, to being a cruel, authoritarian god who held his people in contempt and violently oppressed them, would eventually be cast out of his distorted Eden in quite the way he had ruled it.

More to the point, what did we think battle looks like if not like this brutal assault, reflecting cruelty, indignity, from one side or the other? Were we expecting it to be like Asterix in Britain where people would stop in the middle of fierce battle to drink a spot of tea at 4? Like a painting of chivalric honour, where the blood is a technicality?

It doesn't matter which side you are on -- in a violent war, your side is going to do things like this to the side you don't like, just as much as the other way round.

The moment of rupture presented by Gaddafi's humiliating, inhuman end and the quick horror and talk of legal process that followed is the knotty centre in the simple version of revolution stories. It is easy to be against something. The enemy can be identified with neat specificity.

Attack is an easy plot point, a clear plan of action. It is quickly manageable -- to be anti-corruption, or anti auto-rickshaw drivers or against AK Ramanujan's essay titled 300 Ramayanas being included in the Delhi University syllabus, or anti foreign funding, and to know that the action following from this must be outrage, denunciation and moral attack, sometimes accompanied by physical violence.

It's far more complicated and effortful to clearly imagine and state what one is for, and after the certitudes of opposition many lapse into fuzzy cliches of change and general goodness. In the heat of war, little time is given to the imagination of peace. Unfortunately one cannot change away from something. One has to change into something.

The achievement of peaceful protest is that it is a paradigm shift in the story of opposition. It imagines existing in a different way than the aggressor. Yet it's not always possible to choose peaceful protest.

Gaddafi's pitiful death might have been inevitable, given the brutalisation of his violent regime. But the display of his body as a trophy and the constant reproduction of those images in the media, celebrated the very violence that everyone was fighting against.

For those who extend the contextualisation of violence to a championing of one violence over another, perhaps we must think about what it is in us that makes us unable to look away from that rupturing image of death, even if just for a few moments.

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with
fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at

The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper.

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