Editor’s Note: The Ferguson police force now resembles a military unit more than it looks like a riot squad. Since when did U.S. citizens become the enemy?
A photograph is never sufficiently proportional to truth. The truth — the full story, the context of things — is too large and complicated to be encompassed by any single image. So from Ferguson, Mo., where daily protests have erupted after Saturday’s police shooting of an unarmed African American teenager, we get only photographic data points.
A man lights a rag in a bottle and prepares to throw a Molotov cocktail; militarized police sit atop armored vehicles, guns drawn and aimed at protestors who have their hands raised. Both are volatile images, and both confirm aspects of the truth: There are provocateurs among the mostly peaceful protestors, and the police have adopted a terrifyingly aggressive posture in relation to the citizens they supposedly serve.
But these images aren’t coming from Egypt or the Gaza Strip or Ukraine. These are our own, homegrown documents of social unrest and they can’t, like images from more distant lands, be kept safely at bay.
The manipulation of photography has become so complex and widespread that images from conflict zones often tend to cancel each other out. Propaganda has trickled down from the state to the D.I.Y. level, and it’s hard to tell the difference between the two.
The resulting frustration, our inability to be certain of the authenticity of the image and the accuracy of the caption, is in many ways a relief: If we can’t be sure whether the bloodied corpse of a dead child was the result of a bomb from Hamas, or the Israeli army, we push it aside, grateful not to have to take a moral position on the conflict. The self-canceling nature of images releases us from the responsibility to think things through.
We don’t have that luxury when it comes to the images out of Ferguson because this is us. These are the cities we have made, the police we have hired and paid to protect us, the social fissures we have allowed to fester, the social inequity we accept as necessary collateral damage from our larger pursuit of prosperity. So we must ask: Do these images really cancel each other out? Does the man with the Molotov cocktail in some mathematical way create a deficit in the social order that requires the compensation of a military confrontation? Are both sides of the equation balanced?
The state was once well served by its near monopoly on the ability to manipulate and control imagery. But today, just the opposite is true. People in authority benefit from our distrust of images because that distrust feeds a seeping, nihilistic detachment, which leads to civic disengagement. We turn away from our responsibility to watch the Watchmen; we tend our own garden.
Police brutality, caught on tape so many times now that it is a wonder more communities haven’t erupted in outrage like Ferguson, can only be dismissed if the citizenry is adept at disbelieving what it sees. The video tape gone viral on Facebook or YouTube, we are told again and again, doesn’t capture the context of the beating, the tasering or the shooting. It must be interpreted by professionals; you can’t believe what you see. We’ll form a task force and get back to you . . . after you’re no longer interested, or angry.