Watching the Making of a Martyr

Video of the death of Neda Agha Soltan, who was shot in the chest as she stood near a peaceful protest in Tehran this Saturday, has become a potent symbol, spreading worldwide through social websites and news media alike. In the fourth in a series of guest posts, professor of media studies Steven Gorelick considers the implications of martyrdom and mythmaking.

Does this mean I have to watch it again?

That was my first thought when asked for my reaction to “the Neda video.”

I had watched it early on, before its provenance was clear, and felt I had already grappled with its horror. I remember forcing myself to face the screen, as if watching every second would admit me to some global community of the grieving.  I wanted to watch it all and I did. It was horrible.

Then, perhaps to gain some distance, I imagined myself an editor:  The video seems legitimate. The language and tumult and confusion have the feel of authenticity. It has already been embedded in hundreds of blogs and news reports. It has traction. But how do I know it is real? And what is the context, the moments before and after?

Though not actually an editor, I do, like all video viewers, serve as the “gatekeeper” of my own emotional landscape. Was it safe to admit the images to what Walter Lippmann called “the picture of the world in our heads?”  Should I take a leap and allow myself to feel it fully?   What if it was only one of the fraudulent digital “mash-ups” that are so pervasive on YouTube?

But soon it was authenticated. All the clinical introspection disappeared. I felt physically ill thinking of the blood gushing from Neda’s eyes and mouth. And I had no choice but to reluctantly add her 40 seconds to the store of images and other cultural fragments that I — like everyone else — shape into a personal “picture of the world.”

The images were real.  But not for long.

Because as quickly as we watched Neda’s young life ebb away, she began the ascent to icon that occurs when the right image of suffering meets the right political context. Neda Agha Soltan, a real young woman who died at a real time and place, ceased to be fully Neda and became a stand-in for individual and collective hopes, fears and anxieties. She became a candidate for martyrdom.

Visual proxy martyrs are not necessarily bad. They allow us to invest an image with our own grief, confusion and rage. With them, we can indulge our deepest yearning to find meaning in tragedy.

But martyrdom comes at a cost. Because the moment Neda’s death became an image, the moment she came to represent collective anger and political aspirations, a very real young woman began to lose the complexity that made her human. Horror began to morph into a sort of nobleness. That ennobled image may have inspired courage and action, but it also formed the basis of potential fictions. Stripped of its complicated factual context, the image becomes part of a story we supply.

These near-truths can be comforting. And the alternative, full-frontal confrontation with real horror can be unbearable. Why not occasionally seek temporary relief in avoidance and self-deception?

The problem is that with each fragment of mythology, each instance in which we create a narrative from a convenient template, we hasten the day when — acting on that mythology — we will fool ourselves into taking some horribly misguided action.

Neda’s journey to martyrdom is probably inevitable. She is a potent and heroic symbol who might yet be the impetus for revolution.  But she was also a human being.  And keeping that simple fact in mind might just be our fundamental challenge in a digital world that creates, produces and distributes images of potential martyrs with a speed that is at once dizzying and terrifying.

Read the previous post in this series, where professor of history Reza Afshari frames the current social climate of Iran.