DOWNLOADING MY EMAIL this week over a mug of Earl Grey, I was assailed by a number of messages from Tunisia that brought home to me the awesome strangeness that is the big wide world. Certain sections of Tunisian society have every right to feel they"re getting a raw deal from their government, but on this occasion their attention had been turned from arbitrary arrests, mass hunger-strikes in the prisons and crackdowns on human rights organisations to something much more pressing: a photo of a disabled puppy.
Cut to a flash office in Los Angeles, where Meirav Eilon Shahar, Israeli consul for communications and public affairs, is checking into the US news website MSNBC. Flicking to its "Year in Pictures 2000" contest, she notes with alarm that leading the voting is a photograph of a small boy huddled beside his father. The boy is Muhammad al-Durrah and he is seconds away from being shot dead by her country's security forces.
The competition is in a comparative backwater of the Net but, aware that there is no arena so inconsequential that it cannot be turned into a battleground, she fires off an email to a score of people asking them to vote for rival photos. As is so often the case in cyberspace, the email multiplies exponentially and, before you know it, "Death in Gaza" has been replaced by "Tough Puppy" as the crowning image of the year.
Cue the backlash from the pro-Palestinian lobby. The Council of American-Islamic Relations hurriedly calls upon Muslims worldwide to put the terrified little boy back at number one. "Show the Israelis that they cannot kill people, lie about it, and then try to wipe out the evidence."
Without producing any evidence for it, my Tunisian friends claim that Israelis have added to their sins by voting more than once. Muslim brothers are encouraged to remove the MSNBC cookie (a small file that tells the site that they have already voted) from their computers in order to vote again, and again and again. "Imagine if we can get 1000 people to do this 100 times each, the picture will get an additional 100,000 votes."
It"s the new activism: fiddle around with a cookie and help to establish a Palestinian homeland. Back in the United States, Sahar defends her actions to the New York Times: "It is a way for people to express themselves and feel connected and show they are doing something to be supportive." It's the new activism: fiddle around with a cookie and help the Israelis to retain control over the land of Israel.
Furthermore, just like the real thing, the contest boasts inbuilt interminability, since the polls never close (you can still vote for photographs from past years if you wish) and so neither side can ever win. Whisper it if you dare, but perhaps there is something in that concept that both parties secretly find appealing.
For the pro-Palestinian camp, Muhammad al-Durrah is a great Muslim martyr; for the pro-Israelis, he was a pawn cynically brought into the line of fire by his father.
At the time of writing, "Death in Gaza" lies fourth, behind three dogs, while just pipping a photo that seems to sum up the whole farrago. "Mother Instinct" is a rather ambiguous picture of a cat and a chick. Either, as the title suggests, it shows a cat gently picking up a chick by the scruff of its neck, or it was taken just before the cat bit the chick's head off. Either way, it only really matters if you happen to be the chick.
This column first appeared in Third Way magazine. © Third Way 2001