BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. This week, we were inundated by images of catastrophe on an epic scale. Many of them, grisly vacation videos of a frantic and futile race against a wave of water. A powerful reminder of how small the world has become, how clearly we see each other and how clearly others see us across the globe. The first reports were from English-speaking tourists, survivors with cameras, whose stories in some ways obscured the true extent of the calamity for the people who lived there. But ultimately, this horror, like most these days, was recorded - demanding a response from every citizen of the world.
Consider the parade of nightmarish images just this year: the beheading of hostages, torture at Abu Ghraib, 300 children killed in Beslan, Russia. And what of the images we have not seen - the dearth of pictures from Darfur, for instance? Is it better to see or not to see? Does it spur us to responsible action, or exhaust our empathy? This week the answer was clear. In just three days Americans donated 18 million dollars to the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
But natural disaster is uncomplicated. Not so mayhem wrought by man. Images of war inevitably are colored by how they are presented, who presents them and why. The great culture critic Susan Sontag, who died this week, wrote two years ago in The New Yorker that "Photographs of an atrocity may give rise to opposing responses: a call for peace; a cry for revenge; or simply the bemused awareness, continually restocked by photographic information, that terrible things happen."
"The dead," she continued, "are supremely uninterested in the living: in those who took their lives; in witnesses-or in us. Why should they seek our gaze? What would they have to say to us? "We"-this "we" is everyone who has never experienced anything like what they went through-don't understand. Can't understand, can't imagine."
But though the dead are no longer interested in us, we cannot afford to lose interest in them. What after all, she asked, is the alternative? "That images of carnage be cut back to, say, once a week?
No Committee of Guardians is going to ration horror."
In the argument over images, I stand in favor of more not less. But, as in all things media, we cannot be passive as we stare into the faces of the dead. We cannot allow a picture to stand in for the truth. We have to seek it out, and we have to act, because we can.