Commentary: Neda's death was shared by all

The Miami HeraldJune 25, 2009 

Maybe you were there when Neda died.

If you were, you saw a tragedy, of course — a 26-year-old Iranian protester gunned down in the streets. But I am convinced you also saw the future — a profound change in the way you and I will henceforth comprehend the world.

Many of us — your humble correspondent prominent among them — have been less than impressed with the ubiquity of social-networking websites. Spurred by reports of congresspersons who tweet banalities during a presidential speech, of cyber-bullying and flash mobs, we have regarded them as an engine of vanity and inanity, a mirror reflecting the utter vapidity of much of American life and culture.

In this judgment, we have been exactly right. And also exactly wrong.

This is not to say that social-networking media have not been guilty of dumbing down the discourse. But it is to admit the obvious lesson of recent days: They can facilitate higher purposes as well. For this reality, the cause of human freedom can be grateful.

After all, when angry Iranian voters took to the streets to protest a stolen presidential election last week and were clubbed and shot in retaliation, the events could easily have been a non-story in the rest of the world, given that Iran had placed heavy restrictions on foreign reporters. But what the theocratic regime had not counted on was that ordinary Iranians armed with camcorders, laptops and cellphones would document the unrest or that it would make its way to YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other web places where people connect.

If the world could not come to the outrage, they would bring the outrage to the world. The result has been an international furor that has caught Iran's government in an awkward dance of backpedaling (it now admits to election irregularities but claims they did not impact the outcome) and bluster (warnings that protesters face a harsh crackdown). The world did not force the regime to that point. Its people did. Neda did.

There is something . . . electrifying in watching Neda Agha-Soltan, blood-streaked and prostrate on the sidewalk, dying on camera and knowing this moment has not been framed and contextualized for you by a blow-dried network news reporter but is, rather, the grief cry of some unknown person with a cellphone camera who is desperate for you to see what is happening, desperate for you to know. It is a raw, person-to-person connection, and one is hard-pressed to imagine its equal in any other medium.

No, this is not the first time people have used social networks for this purpose, but it is certainly among the more dramatic and compelling.

As such, it presents a stark argument that the way we receive and process information is changing and even more fundamentally than it did 18 years ago when cable network news came of age in its coverage of the Gulf War. That moment represented the ascension of a new medium.

A medium unto ourself

This one recognizes that each of us has become a medium unto ourself, that each of us can now reach the rest of us. If tweeting banalities during a presidential address represents the nadir of that potential, if a cyberspace filled with unfactual ''facts'' that undermines reasoned and informed discourse represents its threat, then the death of Neda represents its promise: henceforth, you are not alone. We all stand witness, one for another.

Were I at the head of some repressive regime, I would watch with trepidation. Once upon a time, it was easy to impose the darkness necessary for evil deeds.

But in a world where people now have means of linking to each other beyond government strictures and structures, darkness is much harder to come by.

As you doubtless know if you were there when Neda died.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.

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