Regarding the ‘Halloween Photo’

Henry Clements | Class of 2014

On Halloween a group of students posted a picture of themselves on Facebook which represented, as best I could tell, four American soldiers posing with an ambiguous, bearded, dark-skinned man. Two of the “soldiers” pointed toy guns at the man, who was kneeling below them. A Muslim-American student posted a lengthy reaction on Facebook denouncing the photo as offensive and racist. A flurry of comments followed retorting that the brown man in the picture represented not just any Muslim but Osama bin Laden, and that the white men in the photo represented SEAL Team Six. She was told to “stop being ridiculous,” that the photo was not anti-Muslim but rather a celebration of a mass-murderer brought to justice. That she took offense to such a photo was seen as largely illegitimate.

All those who dismiss her response as illegitimate are displaying an ignorance—whether willful or not I do not know—of the most basic fact about visual symbols, which is that they always have many meanings. Individual people, drawing on their own experience, read them differently. With regard to this incredibly charged photo, to say that the image depicts a specific person does not and cannot rule out other readings. This warrants a closer look.

Since the launch of George Bush’s war on terror (and further back, too), Americans have pointed a lot of guns at a lot of brown people, many of whom look a lot like the kneeling man in the photo. In the Internet age, these confrontations are often caught on film and posted online. In many cases the circumstances behind the photograph are very ugly and are rightly disturbing to most Americans. There are, of course, the notorious pictures from Abu Ghraib. Add those to the pornographic photos from the war in Afghanistan showing American soldiers mocking dead Afghanis, including urinating on corpses.

In the Halloween photo, two of the American “soldiers” flank the implicitly Muslim man; one leans over him to the point where he is nearly directly above him. He is smiling. Another “soldier” raises an American flag with his head tilted back, disinterested and apathetic to the violent scene before him. Those who insist that this photo can only be read as a reference to Osama bin Laden should educate themselves as to the images that are circulating around the globe, images that document the U.S. war on terror, images markedly similar to the Halloween photo in question. This context cannot be ignored.

For a long time now there has been a movement among some Native American communities to change the name of the Washington Redskins, a team in the NFL. The response of the greater American football fan base has been largely dismissive. Their argument is exactly that made by the defenders of the Halloween photo, namely that there is only one possible (and legitimate) reading of the word “Redskins,” that it is simply a name and innocent of any racism. The fact that the name could have another meaning for Native Americans, for whom the word evokes their genocidal history at the hands of white Americans, is often denied. For the sake of Muslims here and abroad, and for the sake of America’s position in the world, let us not dismiss the multiple meanings behind scenes such as the one enacted by students at our university. Personally, I’ve had it with marginalized American communities being told what they should and should not be offended by.

  • American

    It is obvious after reading the vicious comments on the young lady’s FB page, that the people who defended the picture the most, had the most hateful things to say about Islam. So, in the end, Ms. Jahangiri wasn’t that wrong after all about what was being projected with that particular photo.

    • WUSTL ’12

      Or or or Ms. Jahangiri’s wildly-inappropriate (and, ironically, stereotypical of Muslims) overreaction evoked an angry response from people who see Muslims attempting to trod on human rights on a regular basis.

      That has nothing to do with the photo, but rather internalized Muslims stereotypes that the student was reenforcing.

  • theunspokenstudentbody

    Personally, I’ve had it with being told what I should and should not think. I thought the picture was hilarious and I am fully entitled to that opinion.

    • X

      So if you find blackface or jewish jokes hilarious, your response should be beyond reproach because it’s your opinion?
      No one is trying to tell you what to think, just to critically examine your own beliefs and responses. that’s how society progresses.

      • Y?

        >So if you find blackface or jewish jokes hilarious, your response should be beyond reproach because it’s your opinion?

        The implicit answer to that question is no, right? Well, if taking personal offense is treated as being beyond reproach, then so too should all personal responses. This is a situation where those offended by a portrayal of Osama bin Laden should “critically examine [their] beliefs and responses.”

      • FreeToBeYouAndMe

        You can respond however you want; however, if you attempt to use the power of your group, position or the administration to stifle or punish the speech of another that is when you have abused free speech.

  • Daniel

    Lauren, when reading Mary Shelly’s novel- do you blame Victor Frankenstein for the crimes of the monster or the monster for his crimes?

  • Anonymous

    I agree that it’s wrong to tell someone who is deeply offended to “stop being ridiculous”. I agree that impact, not just intent, matters. I agree that this photo is in extremely poor taste and should never have been taken, much less posted online. I do, however, believe too much is being read into this picture. Your analysis of the image itself is all well and good, but how much of that do you believe was going through the heads of the drunk frat boys taking it? I also think this article suffers for its tone of condescension. It is condescending to tell someone to “stop being ridiculous”, absolutely. But the audience of this article is Wash U students; they are educated, even if they are not all JINELC majors. Telling people not to be offended is foolish and misguided, but no more so than telling people they should be offended. I would ask that students not offended by this picture try to empathize and understand those who are, but to imply, as you do, that anyone who is not offended by this picture is either ignorant or racist is neither accurate nor helpful to the cause of bringing people to the table to discuss this issue reasonably and with a mind to making this campus a more tolerant and understanding community.

  • Lauren

    interesting how you take issue with american’s “pointing guns to brown people” in response to acts of terrors committed against us, but not at the actual terrorist, osama bin laden, who was responsible for the killing of 3,000+ americans, among others.

    • Jay

      3384 Afghanistan + 4802 Iraq = 8186 = Killed by Republican GW Bush
      2996 (2977 victims + 19 hijackers) = Killed by Osama Bin Laden

      GW Bush/ Republicans killed 8186 Americans in 8 Years got us into Great Recession … you dumb a– Republican need to be shipped to Guantanamo … Republicans have destroyed USA … FACT

      • Jay

        GW Bush/Republicans have killed 8186 Americans … FACT

  • G-Money

    Bin Laden photo –>

    Halloween photo –>

    Any questions?