When Rachel Corrie was murdered by the Israeli Defense Force military bulldozer driver in early 2003 it pierced the hearts of those of us who teach Peace and Conflict Studies in colleges and universities across the land. This young woman wrote beautiful and sincere pieces about wanting to help, about justice, about freedom and about hope. She went to Palestine Israel to help and she was murdered. Many of us in the field knew one or more of the professors who had been a part of sending her to her death. They were distraught. She could have been my student. I took it quite personally and still do. Indeed, at that very time I was advising a young student who looked remarkably like Rachel--blond, attractive, earnest, cheerful--and the practicum abroad experience she had found was with the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, in Eritrea. I was hyper-cautious in my advising and even though this student did go to Eritrea, it was with a truckload of advice about how to proceed. I think that's when I started to get gray hairs.
As a constructive conflict teacher and writer, I find it valuable to look through several types of media on an ongoing basis to help me think about the factors involved in conflict management. I read our US papers of record daily (two of them, the New York Times and the Washington Post). I read alternative news services like Common Dreams, Alternet, Truthout, Antiwar and so forth. I read the far rightwing media (obviously, most of my 'reading' is headlines, settling into just a handful of stories daily from the spectrum).
The Rachel Corrie case was a classic example of image and aggression, image and sympathy, image and consequence.
The alternative media showed her as she was for the vast majority of her brief life--sweet, loving, contemplative, altruistic, joyful.
Mainstream media was non-committal and had little to offer.
The rightwing found one photo of Rachel in black hijab, face contorted in what looked like a hateful shriek, a raging and angry jihadi wannabe. I believe it was from some demonstration she attended in Palestine Israel, demonstrations often marked by such angry collective chanting.
That photo, that one image, was used remorselessly by the rightwing to 'prove' that Rachel Corrie was no more than a dupe for Palestinian terrorists who would be slaughtering Jewish children as they slept in a little kibbutz. That single image of Rachel Corrie slandered and slurred her own short life and excused her death to those who react with great fear and violence to the threat of Palestinian terrorism. With one snap of the shutter at one non-representative moment, the issue was settled for many. She courted what she got. She invited the worst and it happened. She chose sides, she threw in with the violent ones, and she paid the price.
A photo can be worth ten thousand lies.
Did that photo show Rachel Corrie running guns, sheltering snipers, or cheering suicide bombers who massacred innocents at a wedding? No. That photo showed her in one ill-advised moment of chanting along with Palestinians frustrated at ongoing indignities and brutalities. That photo showed her anger at injustice, not her intention to support or commit terrorism. But that nuance was lost when the rightwing cynically used that photo endlessly every time her case was considered.
While image should not be the arbiter of life and death, it can be. When we train nonviolent actionists we will either teach them to consider the effects of the images they produce or we leave them bare to the winds of war, standing undefended against the manipulation that can justify violence. The semiotics of a smile or a grimace are far more powerful than perhaps they should be, but that is reality.
Rachel's death and the foul misuse of one image to dampen controversy and the call for justice should teach us something. Honoring her sacrifice by learning from it, teaching about it, and helping nonviolent actionists become more effective and less vulnerable is the least we can do. Images that portray aggression are easily used to produce apathy. "Oh, she was one of those." How many people dismissed her death as just another combatant killed? That would have been much harder to do if she hadn't allowed herself that moment of chanting angrily along with the crowd. We who work in the world of nonviolence are not called to produce actionists who can prove how radically pissed-off they can be. We ought to be producing actionists who understand their highly nuanced role at all times when they take the field of conflict.
In the end, image is a function of a trained and disciplined set of individuals acting in concert to produce sympathy for victims. It matters a great deal.