On Watching Neda's Death

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June 23 2009 9:50 AM

On Watching Neda's Death

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Dana , Susannah : Like many Americans, I watched the " Neda video " yesterday. This is, of course, a horribly shorthand way of saying that I opened a video clip that captures a young Iranian woman dying after being shot. The movie is short. It is "graphic," if by graphic we mean that we see blood, and the violence that can be done to a body. More subtly, and entirely fascinatingly (in the old, sober sense of the world), it captures the moment a person’s life drains out of her body. I have, in the past, always decided not to watch videos like this (Danny Pearl’s execution, say). This time I changed my mind, and it haunted me all last night.

Why has Neda become a symbol of Iranian freedom? Because we witness the sight of her death. That sight, even at a remove (or perhaps because at a remove), is so difficult to hold in mind that we have to transform it. Ironically, I think, even as many genuinely try to honor the random violence of her death by making it representative of "freedom," they rob it of meaning. In reducing it to a symbol, it becomes monolithic rather than intimate. Perhaps that’s what you mean, Dana, when you ask whether this is a "snuff" video, and Susannah, when you say it is. Certainly, it's an artifact that turns a single individual’s death into an example. Neda, as many newspapers reported, was, according to her friends and family, not political. She stepped out of the car to get a breath of air. She was a casualty of conflict. What does that mean? Does it mean anything?

As it happens, I was just reading art critic T.J. Clark’s The Sight of Death . Near the end, he writes, "I think we hide, necessarily, from an understanding of what is most to be avoided in the sight of death." Then he diagnoses "the confusion of mind that human beings experience in the presence of a corpse. Different, and largely unconscious, worlds of inference are set in motion, working full speed, colliding with one another. Corpses are (still) persons. They are people we cannot help treating, at one level, as entities with wishes, fears, awareness, sadness, maybe depths of despair." This, it strikes me, is what has happened to Neda; the mystery and horror one feels at watching Neda’s face go still in the YouTube clip have been transformed to a profound identification with her humanity, if not her selfhood.

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Photograph of Iranian protesters by Mark Ralston/Getty Images.

Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.