Watching People Die For Dinner

We had the TV on last night while eating some Holiday leftovers. Wanted to watch some of the news coming out of Iowa. I don’t like the horse race aspect of the American Elections, but I feel good about all the leading Democrat candidates this time round, and so for now all news – like the massive turnout among Democrats in the Iowa Caucuses – is good news.

But by the time we sat down, PBS’s Newshour with Jim Lehrer was just about done with Iowa and switched to a BBC report on another election – the disputed one in Kenya and the violence that has followed. The report started with the not unfamiliar shot of a BBC reporter standing in front of an unruly opposition crowd playing up for the camera, in this case setting fire to tires; government forces had stopped them marching. Moments later we saw a long-distance shot of what I initially thought was two rioters high-fiving. But it wasn’t. It turned out one of the men had raised his hand in self-defence as the other attacked him with a machete. Then the first man tried to run away, but he was already cut and weakened. A machete caught him in the back, and the camera faded to black. The BBC reporter filled in the blanks: “he was hacked to death.”

The disputed elections of recent American history and the cautious optimism about a change in ’08 suddenly seemed a long way away – a continent away, in fact. Instead, I felt nauseous, unable to eat. I’d sat down to watch a report about a democratic process and had (all but) seen someone hacked to death over, ostensibly, a democratic process. Who was this poor man whose life faded to black along with the TV screen? What was his crime? Had he voted for the sitting President, Mwai Kibaki? and if so, how did anyone know for sure? By his tribal appearance? Since when should a man’s mere appearance confirm his guilt? And did he deserve death for his vote, or his appearance – or, indeed, for anything else? What went through his killers’ minds as they snuffed the life out of him? Were the reporters complicit in the violence, encouraging it by their presence? Or were they mere witnesses to something going on all over the land? How did the cameraman feel, zooming in on the action and seeing someone’s life cut short by machete? How could the General Secretary of the Kenyan Opposition, Anyang Nyongo, on the BBC World Service this morning, proclaim so intently that all the violence in Kenya was a result of Government/ police brutality, when this internecine murder had been captured on camera for all the world to see?

In the words of the Carbon/Silicon song, why do men fight? Should Americans have taken to the streets when the Supreme Court handed Bush the election in 2000? or when the poorer people of Ohio were so blatantly denied their right to vote in 2004? And if so, is this how we would have wanted it to end up – in a replica of 1992’s Los Angeles riots, when the footage of Rodney King being beaten by cops was soon enough swapped for that of Reginald Denny being pulled from his truck and beaten to within inches of his life? And did not the Jim Lehrer Show have some sort of duty to warn us what they were about to show? My 12-year old son was sitting just a few feet away; do I really want him to see people being hacked to death without warning?

I got up this morning thrilled that the mixed-race candidate Barack Obama (who my good friend Geoffrey Armes has just reminded me is himself half-Kenyan) had won 50% of the Democratic vote in a State that’s almost entirely Caucasian. I got up hoping that the electoral process won’t fail us this time around. And I got up feeling pained and confused, angry and yet helpless, at electoral violence halfway around the world, and the casual manner in which the media beams it into our homes.

And no, I don’t have a poignant final sentence.

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October 2021