On the hypocrisy of American audiences

Gangs of New York Movie Poster

Before the invasion of Iraq and the Oscars, I went to a theater to view Martin Scorsese’s film, “Gangs of New York.” Set in tumultuous New York City in the mid-1800’s, the opening scene chronicles a battle between an Irish immigrant group known as the Dead Rabbits, led by Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), and the pre-existing Anglo group calling themselves Native Americans, led by Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis). The Priest consecrates his ragtag army as they prepare their crude homespun weapons, and leads them out of their slum caves and into the bright crisp wintry solitude of an intersection in Five Points. The Butcher and his men appear, and after a brief uneasy face-off, the inevitable violence is enjoined. The two groups rush toward a convergence of metal and flesh, and as the first blood spurted from some major artery getting hacked, gasps of horror arose from the audience. As the carnage continued to be inflicted with spears, pitchforks, axes, and any other implement capable of splitting a skull, piercing organs, or otherwise separating a man from his soul, the people in the theater audibly registered their disgust and shock.

When I left the theater, I couldn’t help feeling angry at a society that condemns imaginary violence on a screen, but condones real, life-shattering butchery when it’s perpetrated on poor people in a third-world country “for their own good.” Somehow, it’s not acceptable to portray gushing fake blood because it’s gratuitous, yet supporting a military action that drops cluster bombs on a population of which over half are children is considered patriotic. We don’t see images of regular everyday people or the gory consequences of our air campaign; instead, we are presented with a filtered view of war. Cameras mounted on missiles record the destruction of buildings, but do not follow the shards of debris flying into soft bodies nearby. Why are we exhorted to “never forget” the grim portraits of those murdered in a Holocaust carried out by German fascists, yet in the name of good taste we must self-censor the “pornographic” imagery of Iraqis whose souls we have liberated? Footage from the World Trade Center showed ordinary Americans enduring a man-made disaster, and perhaps being spared from seeing a similar fate being inflicted on fellow human beings makes it easier to pretend that our foreign policy makes sense.

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A prophet on the burning shore