Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag was published in 2003, only a year before Sontag died. In the book, which in some ways can be described as a long essay, Sontag discusses the relationship between war, violence and photography. Is it possible to grow accustomed, and even indifferent, to images of war and suffering? And if so, what happens when we no longer react to such pictures? In a time when we are constantly flooded with images and stories portraying suffering that is often geographically distant from ourselves, what does it take to evoke compassion that lasts longer than some fleeting seconds and which can lead to action rather than detachment from a reality we are not – yet – forced to live in? With the war in Syria now being compared to a slaughter house and hell on Earth, this discussion and these questions seem more pressing and relevant than ever before.
Look, the photographs say, this is what it’s like. This is what war does. And that, that is what it does, too. War tears, rends. War rips open, eviscerates. War scorches. War dismembers. War ruins. Not to be pained by these pictures, not to recoil from them, not to strive to abolish what causes this havoc, this carnage – these, for [Virginia] Woolf, would be the reactions of a moral monster. And, she is saying, we are not monsters, we members of the educated class. Our failure is one of imagination, of empathy: we have failed to hold this reality in mind. page 8
To those who are sure that right is on one side, oppression and injustice on the other, and that the fighting must go on, what matters is precisely who is killed and by whom. To an Israeli Jew, a photograph of a child torn apart in the attack on the Sbarro pizzeria in downtown Jerusalem is first of all a photograph of a Jewish child killed by a Palestinian suicide-bomber. To a Palestinian, a photograph of a child torn apart by a tank round in Gaza is first of all a photograph of a Palestinian child killed by Israeli ordnance. To the militant, identity is everything. page 10
It is because a war, any war, doesn’t seem as if it can be stopped that people become less responsive to the horrors. Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers. The question is what to do what the feelings that have been aroused, the knowledge that has been communicated. If one feels that there is nothing “we” can do […] and nothing “they” can do either […] then one starts to get bored, cynical, apathetic. page 101
Citizens of modernity, consumers of violence as spectacle, adepts of proximity without risk, are schooled to be cynical about the possibility of sincerity. Some people will do anything to keep themselves from being moved. How much easier, from one’s chair, far from danger, to claim the position of superiority. page 111
There’s nothing wrong with standing back and thinking. To paraphrase several sages: “Nobody can think and hit someone at the same time.” page 118
☞ Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, Penguin, London (2004)