Has television changed everything?

On Winds of Change this morning I read the following comment:

“On the other hand, I think the vast majority of Americans would not accept being party to the massacre of a few million people, even if some members are participating in attacks on Americans. “It is politically necessary” won’t assuage American consciences when pictures of massacred women and children start getting out. America is a powerful and wealthy country, and one of the things that this power and wealth affords is the ability not to have to take the expedient, but morally repugnant solution.”

I know that there are people who believe this very fervently and it’s certainly their right to do so. What puzzles me is why they believe it in the absence of supporting evidence.

Graphic images of war are not new. During the Civil War photographers picked up their equipment and took it to battlefields, sometimes during or shortly after the actual event. The photographs of the aftermath of the Battle of Antietam did not cause an outcry. Oliver Wendell Holmes said of the pictures:

“It was so nearly like visiting a battlefield to look over these views, that all of the emotions excited by the actual sight of the stained and storid scene, strewed with rags and wrecks, came back to us, and we buried them in the recesses of our cabinet as we would have buried the mutilated remains of the dead they too vividly represented…. The end to be attained justifies the means, we are willing to believe; but the sight of these pictures is a commentary on civilization such as a savage might well triumph to show its missionaries.”

The war continued on for three bloody years.

The lurid and graphic newsreels of the atrocities by the Japanese in China during what is called “The Rape of Nanking” were shown around the world in 1937. They did not galvanize opposition to the Japanese military in Europe or the United States. The war in the Pacific happened anyway and was to continue until 1945 with lots of horrific newsreel footage. We remember the 60th anniversary of the end of that conflict today.

While we’re on the subject of World War II, more than a million German civilians and nearly three-quarters of a million Japanese civilians were killed in the course of the war. We were rich then, too, and the people of America certainly knew about it but moral outcry didn’t cause a flagging of support for the war.

Are we so different from the people of sixty years ago? What has changed? Are our sensibilities so much more delicate than those of our grandfathers or grandmothers? For thirty years people have told me that television has changed everything. I don’t believe it for a second.

When the video footage of the destruction of the World Trade Center was shown over and over again on television following the attack on September 11, 2001, there were several different reactions. Here in the United States we were saddened or afraid or angry. Or all three. The reaction of some people like those in Gaza who rejoiced was depraved. In Europe some mourned for a day, wondered at the marvel, and put it behind them.

Sadly, I think Napoleon’s dictum remains true. There are only two great motivators: fear and the hope of gain. Moral outrage is way down on the list. The increased information that television and the 24-hour news cycle brings does not automatically bring compassion along with it. And, given sufficient motivation particularly in the form of fear, human beings—even Americans—will go to very great lengths.

That recognition is, I believe, one of the great dividing lines of opinion about the War on Terror (or whatever we’re calling it now). Some believe that regardless of the provocation we certainly won’t use the power that’s at our disposal. Others of us believe that, given sufficient provocation, we have the ability and will have the will to go to very great lengths and that we should have a much greater sense of urgency and a much greater willingness to apply more resources—military, economy, diplomatic, and political—because without that urgency and willingness it’s inevitable that sufficient provocation will come.

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