Wafaa Bilal, NYU professor, Iraqi and performance artist, got famous by locking himself in a small, Chicago gallery with an automated paintball gun pointed right at him. The gun was hooked up to the Internet, and viewers at the gallery and online could shoot him with yellow paint balls from point blank range at any time.
Over the course of a month, more 60,000 people from 130 countries shot at Wafaa. He was hit when he stood, worked at his computer or tried to sleep. The relentless assault re-triggered the post-traumatic stress disorder Wafaa acquired in Iraq having lived through the horrific rule of Saddam Hussein, two wars, a bloody uprising, and time spent interned in chaotic refugee camps in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
What inspired this performance was the death of his 21-year-old brother at a checkpoint by a U.S. Predator drone, and the death of his father shortly after. The project, called ’Domestic Tension’, was born when Wafaa read an article about a U.S. soldier in Colorado who remotely fired drone missiles in Iraq. Distraught with grief and incensed at the complacency around him, he designed this web-based performance piece to dramatize the desensitization of violence and death in war. Shooters were removed from any physical impact through the pseudo-anonymity of the internet and their distance from the site. They didn’t even hear the sound of their shots.
As dramatic a demonstration as this was, what happened next surprised even Wafaa. Naturally, some people enjoyed the violence, insulting Wafaa online or simply shooting at him for fun or to stem their office boredom. Yet even as hackers programmed the gun to fire constantly, a network of shooters emerged committed to defending him. Called the Virtual Human Shield many members were people who felt guilty for shooting him before. Their mission was to defend him by always pointing the gun to the left hand side. That was when Wafaa achieved his stated goal – he had established a dialogue.
By dehumanized himself, Wafaa tapped into something universal – the individual conscience. In the final days the battle was fought not between the shooters and Wafaa, but between the opposing collective consciences of those attacking and defending him. The project was not only successful in bringing attention to the daily experiences of Iraqi citizens and the increasing dehumanization of war. It demonstrated that social media is no guarantee of moral certitude and is vulnerable to the mob mentality.
Each day U.S. drones wing their way over the borders of Pakistan. Even though they are unmanned, we must not forget that the often innocent casualties on the ground are men and women. The densensitization of violence in video games has led to a dramatic increase in youth violence and the post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) suffered by veterans is well documented, resulting in depression, murder and suicide. As war becomes increasingly robotic, the inevitable desensitization is not only a deadly threat to terrorists. It could cost us our humanity.
Simon Mainwaring is the founder of We First, a leading brand consultancy that provides purpose-driven strategy, content, and training that empowers companies to lead business, shape culture, and better our world.