Errol Morris, Sabrina Harman and Gaddafi

It was just a coincidence that I had just finished reading “Believing is Seeing” by filmmaker Errol Morris when the uprising in Libya came to its climax with the killing of Col. Muammar Gaddafi.

Morris devotes a significant portion of his book to the story of Sabrina Harman, and the photograph of her bent over a body of a prisoner at Abu Ghraib, smiling broadly and giving a thumbs up.

Sabrina Harman at Abu Ghraib with corpse

Sabrina Harman at Abu Ghraib. From "Believing is Seeing" by Errol Morris.

Morris carefully and fascinatingly unpacks Harman’s story, adding context and depth that reveal that there was much more to the story than was encapsulated in that image. I won’t go into a lot of detail, because that’s not really the point of this post. Instead, what struck me was how similar Harman’s pose was to that of Libyans recorded at the scene and time of Gaddafi’s death.

Morris quotes Harman on the thought, or lack thereof, behind the pose: “It was just to say, ‘Hey look, it’s a dead guy. We’re with a dead guy.’…I know it looks bad. I mean, even when I look at [the photographs] , I go, ‘Oh Jesus, that does look pretty bad.'”

Why the thumbs up?

“I kind of picked up the thumbs-up from the kids in Al Hilla…and so, whenever I would get into a photo, I never know what to do with my hands. So any kind of photo, I probably have a thumbs-up because it’s just – I just picked it up from the kids…”

Okay, now look (if you can stand it) at the video of Gaddafi. The reactions are chillingly similar. Totally different cultures. Different wars. But, the same reactions.

Okay, so you might say, “well, the Libyans were oppressed by Gaddafi. It was a natural release for them.” But really, is that so different than soldiers in a war zone assigned to guard terrorists who believed that the fastest way to heaven was to kill American soldiers? (regardless of whether or not you believe that to be the case, you have to acknowledge that for soldiers on the ground that was not an unreasonable assumption.)

I wish I had a simple, concise conclusion I could draw from this. But I can’t. It’s not simple and not easy to explain or understand. But, maybe in some way, these two things: the photograph of Sabrina Harman and the video of Libyans posing with the dead body of their deposed leader say something about the way people across cultures react in similar situations. Maybe it says something too about what happens when every possible moment is being recorded in photographs and videos.

When I was a child, my Dad told me that when John Dillinger was shot in front of the Biograph in Chicago, people flocked to the scene and dipped handkerchiefs in Dillinger’s blood. They wanted a souvenir. Today, they’d be shooting video with their iPhones.

Maybe our reaction to death and violence isn’t much different no matter what time and what culture we live in. Maybe it’s just that it’s so much more likely to have that reaction recorded today. And maybe…just maybe…we need to remember that when we freeze someone in 1/60th of second for all eternity, we can capture many things, but the one thing we never capture is the “truth.”

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