So many home videos of the multiple disasters to strike Japan over the past week have been posted online that, even while sitting in the comfort and safety of our homes, it’s almost as if you can suffer post-traumatic stress repeatedly reliving the tsunami horror that came roaring ashore in northern Japan after the massive 9.0 earthquake. The unreal visuals are as overwhelming as they are ubiquitous.
The sound that accompanies the images truly brings it home for the viewer. The shocked gasps and screams of people behind the camera. The grinding and screeching of metal on concrete as buildings are torn off their foundations and pushed down a street that in seconds has been transformed into a raging torrent of water and debris.
Regular television media isn’t that personal. The smooth filters of network news and the neat, two-minute packaging and professional narration of its mini news movies seem to insulate the viewer from the real shock and human agony that these amateur videos capture in minute, heart-wrenching detail. We understand immediately that everything one has taken for granted in life has been swept away in a matter of seconds by an unstoppable, unreasonable force.
As hard as it is to watch, the disaster voyeurism is habit-forming. I’ve found myself looking for ever-more spectacular scenes of destruction and chaos.
After a while, though, the mind becomes numb to the tragedy of it all, probably as a natural psychological defence mechanism.
So, while the communications technology that enables this kind of raw journalism can bring us all closer, faster, it can ultimately be a barrier as well. As long as the hurt and death and loss are only on our screens, it can be digested and eventually forgotten when we move on to the next shocking new thing.
Certainly, many of the dictators across the Middle East in the face of massive popular uprisings were thankful for the Japanese disaster as it distracted world attention from their bloody attempts to cling to power. Perhaps coincidentally, not long after the earthquake, the guns were turned on those who thought the momentum in favour of democracy and human rights had become as unstoppable as a tsunami.
But the waves of protest are breaking on the hard metal breakwaters of armed repression. Here again, the amateur videographers are capturing the horror of government murder from Bahrain to Libya to Yemen.
Despite reassuring the US government that it would engage in dialogue and negotiations with the opposition, the Bahraini regime has instead begun massacring its opponents on the streets of the capital, Manama. One home video shows a man walking up to a line of soldiers and attempting to talk to them. Instead, a soldier simply shoots him. After he staggers, the soldier fires again, and the man collapses, dead.
Brutal and graphic it may be, but the video sequence accurately shows the response to attempted dialogue and negotiation by the Bahrain regime: summary execution.
While it may have been too much to hope for a clean sweep of the bloody police states that predominate in this region after the inspiring revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt (as unfinished and messy as they may be), the apparent disaster unfolding in Libya is heartbreaking.
After taking control of almost the whole of the country outside the capital of Tripoli, the mad Colonel Gadhafi has been able to turn back the tide thanks to hard armour and hired mercenaries. The Libyan near-victory is turning into a rout as the world watches, but sits on its hands as the heroes are eliminated. Meanwhile, the video that accompanied and helped illuminate the short-lived liberation of much of the North African country is dwindling as the country returns to the long night of autocratic rule.
These unfiltered glimpses into the lives of people on the frontlines of the world’s dramatic battles of survival – against the elements in Japan, or against the power mad in the Middle East – turn us all into instant experts on places we scarcely knew existed only weeks ago. But that is as it should be, as long as we feel the humanity of those who are struggling to exist and improve their lives.