Invitation to a Beheading

As the rash of hostage-taking and hostage-executions in Iraq continues, so does the making-public of these terrorists’ handiwork – generally in the form of websites, and often specifically as downloadable videos depicting the brutal act itself. But who in heaven’s name would at all be interested in viewing such things? Oh, vast audiences indeed, claims Isa van Dorsselaer in an article in Belgium’s De Standaard (Why So Many Internet Surfers Seek Out Pictures of Beheadings).


Ms. van Dorsselaer starts her head-count of fans of this new sort of reality video in the bazaars of Baghdad, where sales are brisk of what are called “snuff movies” – that is, video and DVD compilations of the filmed executions released to the Net – eclipsing even the pornography routinely kept under the counter but always widely-known to be available. (I find it strange that she uses this English-language phrase, i.e. “snuff movies.” Is that literally what they are called in Iraq, or is that the translation of some Arabic term?) After all, these retail on average for the equivalent of only about one euro – terrorist groups are not very fastidious about copyright, you understand – and fit right in with the rising tide of hostile feelings towards the “West” generally among the native population.

But that is mere prologue. More interesting is the way that, shortly after yet another beheading is announced, as Ms. van Dorsselaer puts it, “search engines almost go ‘Tilt!'” as tens of thousands of surfers rush to view the filmed evidence. Well, maybe even more than that: she cites claims by the owner of a website that carried the video of the recently-executed American hostage Eugene Armstrong, that by Tuesday (21 September) that video had been downloaded from the site a million times.

Half of those doing that downloading turned out to be Americans. Indeed, research by the Pew Internet & American Life Project in July shed interesting light upon efforts by Americans to find violent images of what was going on then in Iraq which of course the mainstream media wasn’t about to allow them to see. A full one-quarter of all adult American Internet users did this, according to the Pew investigation, amounting to some thirty million people (although only one-third of these admitted to explicitly looking for them). Those under thirty were more likely to go in search of such explicit pictures than those older; men more likely than women (one would hope!); Democrats more likely than Republicans.


Why would they do this? Oh, in order to be “better informed,” or in pursuit of some political agenda – including closely examining the filmed proceedings to confirm some hunch that they are all the handiwork of Israeli intelligence, or maybe even set up by the CIA or somesuch American organ. But Van Dorsselaer makes a good point when she uncovers a signpost to other possible reasons, namely that some sites making available these pictures and videos also feature, or link to, more run-of-the-mill S&M material or even just conventional pornography.

Yes, the desire and effect of viewing such material might best be understood in the context of why people go view horror films, things like trying to come to grips with deep-seated fears in a relatively safe environment. But this stuff is actually real, not mere entertainment, and Van Dorsselaer reports further data from the Pew Project that one-third of the men who succeeded in finding and viewing such material – and a full one-half of the women (one would hope!) – admitted afterwards that they wish they hadn’t. Not that that is the only reason to think twice; as other observers remind us later in the article, circulating or even just viewing such material amounts to furthering what amounts to enemy propaganda, not that such considerations need weigh much on someone surfing the Net for a thrill.

Oh and yes, that link embedded up top on the right-hand side of the article’s column is labeled what you probably think: “Click here to see the photos.” But I can tell you already that all you’ll see in that series is pictures of the various hostages – well before their execution, thank you. Come to think of it, though, how does it reflect on Ms. van Dorsselaer’s message that I was curious enough to go look – or that you yourself might be, dear reader?

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