David Tombs: Images of an Execution: News Media, Sexualised Violence and Theology

The paper starts with the image from Goya’s Disasters of War (1863) featured on the cover of Susan Sontag’s influential work Regarding the Pain of Others (2003) as the departure point for an exploration of depictions of sexualised violence in news media. Goya’s image depicts a man hanged from a tree with his trousers pulled down. Most readers see the image as an execution, but few recognise the strong implication of sexualised violence. The presentation examines recent media coverage of case studies featuring sexualised violence, for example: the Death of Gaddafi (2011) and the Tyler Hicks photos of an execution of a prisoner in Afghanistan (2001). It shows how both TV and newspaper coverage of contemporary events tended to obscure, downplay or sanitise sexualised violence as in some ways ‘unspeakable’. It suggests that more attention should be given to the implications of portraying unspeakable violence and the ethical issues it raises. Whilst there are unlikely to be easy answers, a more frank and constructive conversation is needed on sexualised violence in conflict and its relationship to shame. How can responses navigate between the Scylla of a silent complicity on the one side, and the Charybdis of re-traumatisation or further shame on the other side? The paper argues that any ethical response should be guided by an affirmation of the dignity of the victims. The final part of the paper links this discussion to a more honest approach to an apparently unspeakable element of crucifixion in Christian theology – the sexualised violence of the cross.

David Tombs works in Belfast as Assistant Professor of Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation at the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland. His primary research focus is on religion, ethics, and reconciliation, and he is Director of Trinity College’s interdisciplinary Centre for Post-Conflict Justice www.tcd.ie/cpcj. His areas of expertise include: conflict and conflict resolution in Northern Ireland; post-conflict justice and truth commissions in Latin America; and public theology in a global perspective. His publications include: Explorations in Reconciliation: New Directions for Theology (with Joseph Liechty) (Ashgate); Latin American Liberation Theology (Brill); Truth and Memory: The Church and Human Rights in El Salvador and Guatemala (with Michael A. Hayes) (Gracewing); and Rights and Righteousness: Religious Pluralism and Human Rights (Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission). In addition to Northern Ireland he has carried out research in El Salvador, South Africa, Sri Lanka, and Israel/Palestine. He has been a scholar-in-residence at the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey. His present research is focused on sexualised violence and torture practices, and the implications of this for theology and Christian ethics. He is currently writing a book on crucifixion as an instrument of torture and sexualised violence.