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Zarqawi’s face looks peaceful in death. He resembles Pavarotti. His death face portrait has been broadcast in two versions. The first shows him pacific, just slightly bruised, like a medieval Russian icon, somber, slightly fleshy, still. In the second he’s more battered and slightly bloodied, less poised, awkward. We see only his head.
Major General Caldwell in his military press conference pointed out that we cleaned him up. We wouldn’t defile and flaunt bodies as they did, the Major General said. In response to reporters’ questions, the military allowed Zarqawi had been cleaned though not Photoshopped for viewing. Caldwell noted there were horrific unviewable pictures unfit for televising.
The picture not only demonstrates Zarqawi’s death, as did the bizarrely iced and displayed bodies of Saddam’s sons, it gives us only the head and reminds us of Zarqawi’s barbaric beheadings. Our government figures didn’t gloat by holding up his head or sending it down the Euphrates. They were sober steadfast and demure in framing the meaning of his death: ‘a great evil purged’ (Blair) ‘a murderer who won’t murder again’ (Bush), ‘the bloodiest-handed man of our time [sic] dealt with’ (Rumsfeld).
Severing heads was one of Zarqawi’s barbarisms. Brandishing genitals or ears has often been a warrior boast, or scalping or drinking defeated blood. In the Indian epic The Mahabharata, Draupadi, the noblest person of her family, swears she will bind her hair until she washes it in the blood of those who have shamed her. She does. Our ritual in Baghdad looks tame by comparison, civilized.
Looking at death is tabooed in our culture. The US, the greatest, bloodiest dealer of violence in the history of the world, sanitizes image presentation. Most people have not seen pictures of the atomic bomb strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki except for the mushroom clouds. The images of humans melting, peeling faces, women with kimono patterns seared into their skins and children mutilated, were classified by the Pentagon until almost 1970, and they are virtually unknown to the general public now. Barnow’s short documentary of the Japanese footage, Hiroshima-Nagasaki 1945, is almost unbearable to watch. In all our wars, pictures of the dead are censored. Our present government attempts to block us from seeing flag-draped coffins, much less macerated bodies.
All humans die. Medieval monks and nuns ate in silence with skulls on their refectory tables so they would consider their end. The ascetical practice was to prompt good behavior-i..e. even as you eat and live, remember you will die, so behave accordingly, with restraint. Others take contrary inspiration-‘eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you die.’ Why are we invited to stare at Zarqawi’s dead head? Not, I think, to improve our behavior or to enhance our pleasure.
We are invited to stare at Zarqawi’s dead head for standard warrior and political reasons. Like the medieval heads atop the pikes to warn of the punishment for treason (Thomas More), or the 200 Philistine foreskins David used to buy the king’s daughter, or the scalps or genitals or ears in the notched belts of conquerors, the enemy body is a bounty harvested by the victors who win by killing. Be they the king’s good servants, the fearless and untamed warriors, the men or women without restraint, they’re the living, the enemy is dead. The message is we win.
The message is a lie.