Yesterday was Father’s Day in the United States. I am apart from my family working in Prague as a multimedia coach on a project being undertaken by the University of Miami and colleagues at VSOP in the Czech Republic. In the early afternoon, my fellow coach Ami Vitale informed me of the YouTube video, now circulating, that shows in horrifyingly graphic detail the death of a young woman in Tehran, felled by a sniper’s bullet according to the email that Andrew Sullivan received from a doctor who says he treated her at the scene.
Although warned by Ami of its nature, I felt obliged to see it for myself. Not because I am voyeuristic. But because I strongly believe such deaths, when witnessed, must be understood and addressed by people of conscience throughout the world. In such situations I think of John Donne’s Meditation XVII with his lines “…No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main… Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
These kind of events have been witnessed in all parts of the globe in the last century. Dictatorships and tyrannies abound as examples, always fed by innocent blood shed in the name of the regime, and sanctioned by individuals or ruling elites who see their own people as fodder for personal ambitions.
In some circumstances, the witnesses to these events used still photography or video to express the awful truth of what they were seeing in person. Sometimes, the witnesses were professional visual journalists, and more recently their work has been augmented by documentation from an amateur citizen army of hobbyists, using everything from cell phone cameras to prosumer HD video cameras.
Such documentation has historically helped mobilize public sentiment against these tyrannies. The photographs or video can help generate firm opposition and countervailing pressure until the tyrants yield, then fall away, and an acknowledgement of their crimes against their people can be submitted for a full accounting.
Throughout the past week’s events in Iran, social networks such as Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook have been crucial conduits of information as other “normal” media channels are increasingly impinged upon by the actions of the Iranian government. These networks have helped the world to bear witness in a collective way that previous eras of dictators could never have envisioned.
Former Washington Post colleague Craig Stoltz posted yesterday on the topic. I agree with his views on the subject and completely understand the impact that watching the video had on him personally.
As someone who also came of age in the Vietnam War era and saw the power of images to rally collective sentiment, I appreciated his comparison of this video to the still photographs shot by Nick Ut and Charles Moore among others. It also reminded me of Stuart Franklin’s photo from Tiananmen Square of a solitary man standing before a line of tanks.
Craig closes his post
“Much is made about Twitter and its limited ability to drive change.
This isn’t about that.
It’s about the power of a single, brief incident captured on video–in an environment where people share what moves them instantly with a global audience, without the assistance or approval of governments, media or any institution—to change others’ minds.
Change the world?
In the cool light of morning, I realize that’s foolish too.
But if you are feeling strong and brave and willing to have a horrifying image seared into your brain, view the video.
It will change you.”
I would agree, adding simply that my construct of Father’s Day memories has also been altered irrevocably by watching this video. As the father of a teen daughter, I can only begin to image the terror and horror of that moment for him. The terrible anguish, futility, and guilt he must have felt as his daughter’s (Neda’s) life flowed away while he cradled her head and screamed her name, powerless to affect the outcome.
In my family’s belief system, the principal duty of a parent is to protect the life of their child, thereby honoring a compact made at birth to enable that child to grow safely to full adulthood. Sustaining the compact is the fundamental awareness of the sacredness and uniqueness of each human life.
In Iran, a government has made the decision to unleash murderers on the civilian population. Lessons about the sacredness of human life have been forgotten once again, and sacrificed on the altar of political ambition. Putting myself in the mind of the sniper who targeted Neda, the awful logic is clear. Take advantage of a clear target who is in range. Kill the child to completely shock the parent (Los Angeles Times article based on subsequent reporting identifies the man as her music teacher) and all nearby, thereby cowing them in compliance. Through this instrument of state terror, the mission of ending civilian protest is accomplished.
Neda, her father, and the rest of her family have paid the awful, ultimate price for such brutal, cold-blooded ruthlessness. Their sacrifice, one of many according to news reports, should not go unmarked or unremembered.
Social networks can be activated to mobilize citizen action in support of government policy elsewhere that would challenge the brutality being documented. And journalists have a responsibility to bear witness effectively to ensure such events cannot be swept aside by tyrants and their propaganda machines.
As midnight arrives, I sit in my hotel room, speaking via Skype with my daughter and wife in the United States. The normality of their lives is reassuring and in stark contrast to the events unfolding on the streets of Tehran. I go off to sleep thinking about the turmoil in Tehran with the lives at risk there, and the juxtapositions brought about communications technology and media in the age of the Internet.