There is nothing new about the iconic display of a young woman’s final suffering. As Edgar Allen Poe said in his “Philosophy of Composition, “The death of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world.” By “poetical” Poe meant most capable of producing emotion, thus he would not have been surprised that images of Neda Agha Soltan’s death have caused an uproar. After all, he created Lenore, the maiden of his famous poem, “The Raven” and then killed her off, for exactly this reason: to incite a melancholic and passionate response in his reader.
But in Neda’s case, where millions have watched her death on YouTube or other media, there is debate over what our response should be. Should her death be a call to action? Is Obama too slow to intervene? Should we be outraged that Neda has been dehumanized? Some feminists have even equated watching the video of her death to watching a snuff film (a planned death, filmed for the entertainment of the onlooker). But even the debate over our reaction to Neda is not particularly new.
The helpless young woman. The avenging knight. We all know the plot. But, feminist arguments aside, there are disturbing ends to these stories, suggesting that what is most important about Neda is for us to respond with reason, not romance; outrage, not violence. This is why Obama’s neutrality is neither cowardly nor misguided. Certainly, it is not an endorsement of Ahmadinejad’s tactics, as Paul Wolfowitz suggested in the Washington Post on June 19th. Now is the time to consider our actions carefully, so that more young women like Neda do not die.
The Bible offers a cautionary lesson about how to respond to the wrongful death of a young woman in Judges 19. In this story, a tribe of Israelites (the Benjaminites) rapes and kills the mistress of the member of another Israelite tribe, a Levite. The Levite retrieves his concubines’ body, cuts it into twelve pieces, and sends the bloodied evidence to each of the tribes of Israel. The people are shocked and avenge the woman’s death by rising up against the Benjaminites, slaughtering all their women and children, and leaving just a handful of the men alive. When a truce is called, the Israelites realize that they must not allow all the Benjaminites to die. God had issued the covenant of the land to all twelve tribes, and so it was vital that all twelve tribes remain. So, the Israelites urged the Benjaminites to capture and rape the women of neighboring peoples, advice the Benjaminites promptly followed.
Thus, the un-named concubine was avenged. But at what a cost.
Unbelievably, there are those who have held this story up as inspiration. John Milton, for example, felt that the eleven tribes fought in righteous anger and that the English Puritans should follow their example. Most moderns, however, read this story as a parable against answering violence with violence. Obama should take note. The story of the concubine is meant to be a cautionary one, not a battle cry. The death of Neda should fill us with outrage. But our actions should be measured, not vengeful.