The corpse of Tel Aviv shooter Nashat Melhem was inescapable over the past week in Israel. It has been impossible to follow the breaking news of the capture of the man who terrorized Tel Aviv on television or the Internet without seeing the image of Melhem’s body. Clad in a black running outfit, splayed across the walkway of the house where he had been hiding, the dead body of the man who shot up a bar in the middle of Tel Aviv, killing two, was on display for all to see.
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Despite the decision by most to blur out the upper part of Melhem’s body in the photograph, published in nearly all of the country’s newspapers and across the Internet, it was not hard to deduce that the top of his head had essentially been blown off, exposing his brain. And some non-mainstream websites didn’t bother to pixalate.
On one hand, the motives of those who release and publish the images when such a man is killed are clear. There is a desire to provide Israelis with a feeling of closure by making the photograph public. For a full week, many jumpy residents of north Tel Aviv and its environs wouldn’t sit in outdoor cafes and kept their kids home from school for fear that Melhem was still lurking in the area, machine gun in hand, after law enforcement tracked his initial getaway and found his phone and the body of a cab driver he murdered in the area.
Presumably, the purpose of widely circulating the photograph was intended to give the public a sense of closure — showing them that, like the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz, the gunman was “not only merely dead, but most sincerely dead.”
There were other motives as well. Showing Melhem with his deadly weapon on the grass alongside his body told the story reported by the police: That they had been forced to shoot him when he opened fire on them. As they told it in the media, authorities would have much preferred to take him alive in order to find out whether he had accomplices, what his motivation was for the attack, and if he was connected in any way to a larger terror organization.
And finally, perhaps the corpse display was meant to send a message to future potential terrorists: Wherever you are, no matter if you run and hide, we’re coming to get you, and this is how you’ll end up — though for a religion-driven terrorist with a desire for martyrdom, that is a questionable deterrent.
Whether and when to share graphic images of tragedy — from war to natural disaster — is an ongoing debate among journalists (even as the onslaught of social media and fringe online publications means that truly disturbing images can always be found somewhere on the Internet).
When it comes to ideologically and politically motivated terror attacks, the debate over graphic photographs and videos is two-fold. First there is the discussion over whether it is right or wrong to show gory photos of the victims of violence — the 9/11 victims who jumped from the World Trade Center, the beheaded Western journalists and aid workers, and most recently, the victims of the terror attacks in Paris.
Here in Israel, there was a massive public outcry in 2011 when Minister of Public Diplomacy Yuli Edelstein decided to distribute graphic photographs of the stabbed and bleeding bodies of the murdered Fogel family in the settlement of Itamar to the national and international media — with the permission of their relatives. Most news organizations refused to publish the images and there was massive protest against the decision to release photographs of murdered children. My colleague Anshel Pfeffer wrote at the time that “Edelstein hopes the world will see the images from Itamar and blame the entire Palestinian nation by proxy — but in truth, he is belittling and trivializing this terrible murder.”
This is not a concern when we are talking about photos of the bodies of murderers and terrorists. The general public sentiment is that they deserve this indignity and that those who have suffered from their actions or lived in fear because of them have a right to see proof they are gone.
The reasons for showing the photo were clear — yet their constant presence on my screens still felt unhealthy and bloodthirsty, and instinctively I would reach for the off switch or look away. It reminded me somewhat of the times that Saddam Hussein’s body in his death shroud and Muammar Qaddafi's scarred and beaten corpse were published for similar purposes — to offer their victims a tangible, visible resolution to their stories, as well as confirm their deaths beyond a doubt — and yet, looking at them felt gratuitous and voyeuristic. For every gory image we view — as individuals, and a society — we pay a price by becoming increasingly immune to them. In the United States the mainstream press usually avoids such images. The photo of the San Bernadino shooter Syed Farooq lying dead in handcuffs, for example, is only available on a tabloid website — and even then, with a warning.
And yet, there is an argument to be made for forcing us to confront what is happening around us in Israel today, with attempted stabbings, shootings and car attacks becoming nearly a daily occurrence. Over the past four months, there have been countless incidents in which the Israeli public hasn’t been forced to confront any images at all. We have become used to glancing at our smartphones to find a quick news brief reporting that yet another young Palestinian attempted to stab an Israeli and was “neutralized” (often with little clarification as to whether they were captured or killed) and then going about our business.
Perhaps we need to see blood and corpses around us to understand that something is not right — and disturbing images have a rightful place in an increasingly disturbing world.