When it was released in 2010, “Collateral Murder” served as a testament to the raw power of the image to speak truth to power. More recently, it’s come to stand for what WikiLeaks used to be, as a digital marker of a period when the organization both challenged and enhanced established journalism.
Recorded on July 12, 2007, the video shows 12 people being gunned down by 30mm cannon-fire in a Baghdad suburb—as recorded from the cockpit of the American Apache helicopter launching the attack. Among the dead were two Reuters news staff. The video was part of the large volume of material leaked to WikiLeaks by former US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning. The images disturbed and moved audiences for nakedly revealing a cold, clinical and grotesque side of warfare often censored by media outlets willing to act as military cheerleaders. In the lead-up to the US occupation of Iraq, the US (and international) media willfully parroted a great deal of government propaganda and disinformation about Iraq, most famously dubious claims around ”weapons of mass destruction” and links to the 9/11 attack.
Even as WikiLeaks has morphed into something that is anathema to many of those who supported the whistleblowing website back in 2010, Collateral Murder still evinces a powerful message: that the very act of uploading material that challenges hegemonic state power can be as powerful as the material itself. As I wrote a few years back in relation to how Chelsea Manning was imprisoned for her bravery, while those shooting civilians in the video remained unpunished: “The story of Collateral Murder is about how the very exposure of a crime was itself defined a crime, and that we are told, with no hint of irony, that the real threat to democracy is the fact that we have access to these pictures or documents at all. With logic like that, there is little wonder that these forms of dissent are likely to continue.” So, while WikiLeaks may now be disappointing many who supported the organization when it first began, videos such as “Collateral Murder” are still an important reminder of the power of whistleblowing and dissent in the service of examining power.