Wednesday, April 07, 2010

The cloudy lens of confirmation bias

Earlier in the week Wikileaks released a video, "Collateral Murder", leaked from the Pentagon by an unknown whistle blower. I came across it on Andrew Sullivan's blog where he tagged it as clear evidence of a war crime. I watched it, and for the next couple of days have been unable to shake what I saw. It is gut wrenching. The air of unreality is unnerving. The casual comportment of the Iraqi men, their seeming indifference to circling helicopters, the callow, disembodied voices of the pilots, the ever present and portentous cross-hairs on the video screen, the inexorable circling perspective of the helicopter, the audible gap between gun burst and vaporizing clouds of dust, and the muted, silent carnage...and then... the gruesome and shocking sequel. I've rerun the images in my head repeatedly, and I've wondered what they are telling me.

Part of what I'd been grappling with was the nagging feeling that seeing this video was not unlike looking at a densely written text. What it required was much more than a passive viewing. If ever something illustrated the power of framing and the awareness of context to alter and determine perception, this video does that.

Since that initial viewing, my reactions have literally been all over the map. I resisted early impulses to blog about it because I didn't trust myself. I knew that I didn't know enough yet, and I knew that if I waited just a bit, I'd encounter some perspectives that would help me arrive on firmer ground. Little by little those perspectives appeared in the blogosphere. There were, of course, bloggers like Salon's Glenn Greenwald who agreed with Andrew's initial war crimes perspective, but interestingly, it was on Andrew's blog that I found the first dissenting interpretations of the video and the incident captured therein. Others followed. I scanned some other blogs, ones I don't normally read. These perspectives came mostly from persons within the military, some active, some deployed, most apolitical, but all of them alarmed in some way by the video's capacity to tell a story that might not be as true as another story. I found Firedoglake's account persuasive.

But for me the past few days have resembled nothing quite as much as stirring a shallow pond with a stick and then trying to peer down through the cloudy water; the more patient I was, the clearer the water became. Paradoxically, when all had settled, what I finally saw was nothing more than a muddy bottom overlaid with my own reflection. For all my staring, all there is to see is the muck, the unimaginably deep sediment of human folly, born by the currents of time, deposited by degrees, sinking by its own negligible weight, settling down at length and swallowing every prior thing, summoning every living thing above it.


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