Sontag opens her first chapter with a discussion of Virginia Woolf’s response to a letter she received from a lawyer. In this letter, the man posed a question, “How in your opinion are we to prevent war?” Sontag explains how Woolf spends much of her letter refuting the basis of the question, especially the notion that there is any inherent “we” who is responsible for the production of war, then ultimately argues that the answer is not by simply regarding other people’s pain (for example, through pictures.) Sontag builds upon this point, arguing that though pictures may produce an initial sense of repulsion and sympathy, they do not serve to sway anyone towards a different position, no matter how shocking or gruesome the content of the pictures may be.
Essentially, in this chapter, Sontag argues that simply being forced to bear witness to the pain of others is not enough to cause bystanders to play an active role in the prevention of it.
In this chapter, Sontag argues that though everyone has an obligation to view and bear witness to the suffering of others, the reason why most people ultimately view others’ suffering is to fulfill some horrific desire to witness something incomprehensibly horrible. She posits that we might actually even enjoy the suffering of others and subconsciously wish for it to continue for our the sake of our own fascination. Eventually, however, people turn away from these images due to a feeling of impotence. This causes large-scale passivity on the part of bystanders, which only serves to reinforce the structures which allowed for the suffering in the first place. The only way to override this instinct to look away or turn to a different channel when a horrific image is presented to us is to translate our frustration/discomfort/helplessness into a form of action that will directly alleviate the suffering of others.
In short, Sontag asserts that the only way that viewing the suffering of others could be productive is if our initial reaction of disgust or anger is translated into action.
In this chapter, Sontag argues that while the mere act of remembering a tragedy can seem ethical (because forgetting can feel apathetic), it only serves the greater good if we fuel that remembrance into a productive change in either ourselves or the world around us. Furthermore, it does not serve any useful purpose to remember individual “bouts of evil”; rather, we should analyze each instance in the broader context of humanity, history, and progress.
Thus, in this chapter, Sontag reinforces the idea that watching is just watching, and remembering is just remembering, just as pictures of tragedies are ultimately just pictures; these actions hold no inherent meaning unless they are used to inspire us to do or change something.