Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
September 9, 2005
KATRINA: Show Me Life, Not Death
Jeff Goldstein collects some examples, from Andrew Sullivan and others, of Bush critics calling for the media to photograph and display the corpses of victims of Hurricane Katrina, presumably as a means of making the president look bad. (Hat tip: Vodkapundit). Goldstein notes the ghoulishness of this strategy, and its departure from the basics of human decency and respect for the dead.
But there's a more fundamental problem here: the victims of Katrina, like those killed by hurricanes, wars, terrorist attacks, and other catastrophes both man-made and otherwise, aren't just hunks of flesh made to be grist for political debates. They were our fellow human beings, and they deserve to be remembered as they were in life, not as their decayed remains are in death.
The New York Times, to its great credit, did an exhaustive, months-long series of obituaries entitled "Portraits of Grief" (now available in book form), which sought after September 11 to show, not the bodies of the victims (and heroes) of that day, but the people, the lives, who were lost to us. The media has likewise served a useful purpose in the Iraq war when it gives us, rather than casualty statistics or the Koppel-esque reading of laundry lists of names, profiles of the soldiers who have given their lives for their country. (This includes efforts made more recently to profile Casey Sheehan). In each case, the simple human truth about the departed is more than enough to sadden and, as appropriate, enrage most people about the loss of each precious human life.
After the deluge in New Orleans, it will be hard, hard work for the media to track down information about the lives of Katrina's victims, especially because so many were poor, or elderly, or sick, because reporters love to talk about poor African-Americans but don't so much enjoy talking to them, and because those who knew them are scattered, almost literally, to the four winds. And there may well be too many stories to tell them all. But New Orleans deserves its own Portraits of Grief. Tell us those stories, about life; if we are not moved, then the dead have lost their power to move us. But let the bodies of the dead be buried in peace.