Be careful what you watch. Some images never leave you
Published 22/08/2014 | 02:30
By now, you may have seen the controversial front page of Wednesday's New York Post.
Featuring a bound and kneeling James Foley, his ISIS executioner stands beside him as he prepares to decapitate the journalist. One word is sufficient to dominate the page: "Savages."
It's a powerful and shocking image and has, as you may expect, caused a storm of outrage from people who seem to think that the paper was wrong for printing the image. But how can printing the facts be wrong? Yes, there is the argument that it might upset his loved ones. But as we saw from the Foley family's press conference, they have rather more pressing matters of grief to attend to.
No, the loudest squawks of outrage came from people who simply don't like being confronted with the grisly truth of life and death on the ground in that region.
That it took the decapitation of an American journalist, when thousands of other, similar, murders have been committed (and committed to film) to grab the attention of the West is not a reflection of our innate racism, as the usual suspects have claimed.
Instead, it was a stark and horrifying home truth. This is what these people do. This is what they have always done, when given the chance. And, given that chance, they would do it to you. We are far too complacent in the West when it comes to the images we think are acceptable.
Foley's death was reality. And showing the image of him in the seconds before his death was the truth. A truth that is too grisly for some to stomach. But that picture is far more instructive than anaemic footage of a drone strike or some ISIS fighters firing randomly into the desert.
The issue isn't that people were appalled and horrified over the image. The issue is that the enemy is not. They revel in it. For ISIS, this is daily business, and if it takes some queasy stomachs and haunted dreams to bring that reality home to people, then maybe his death won't have been in vain.
The biggest enemy we face in our culture is not ISIS, nor any of the innumerable groups currently spreading fun and happiness around the world in the name of the religion of peace. No, the gravest threat we face is our own lack of belief in our system and a perverse cultural self-loathing that metastasises from old-fashioned liberal guilt.
But as much we should all congratulate The Post for having the nerve to print the picture, there is still no excuse for looking at the actual video of his, or anyone else's, execution.
Jihadi porn has been around since the slaying of Daniel Pearl and Nick Berg but has really flourished in a climate where you can show someone being beheaded on a live streaming site if you want.
As important as that final photo of Foley is, it is equally important that people simply stay away from watching such snuff movies. That would seem to be a fairly obvious sentiment, but it would be a mistake to assume that the only people who get some kind of kick from watching this garbage are apprentice terrorists. Plenty of us, through morbid curiosity or worse, feel no moral qualms about watching someone's final moments on their smart phone.
I once had a row with a colleague about this very issue. He argued that, as journalists we had an obligation to watch all the available footage. I argued that he was being stupid.
Once you've seen the picture of Foley and listened to the voice of his British killer, you don't need to know anymore. It's a grotesque intrusion into someone's dignity and the viewer becomes a willing witness to something none of us have the right to see. Let's put it this way, you don't need to watch a video of a woman being raped to understand - or as close to understand as is possible - the profound violation of the victim.
Yet anybody who has ever watched the last few, terrified moments of someone's life as one of their captors slowly saws their head off must surely be aware of the fact that they are now, morally if not legally, complicit in the barbarous, unspeakable act.
This has nothing to do with some spurious exercise of journalistic ethics, as my colleague claimed. It is simply disturbing voyeurism conducted in a swamp of depravity. As it happened, my colleague looked at the murder. There's no need to go into the gory details here, but he didn't sleep for a week and freely admits that by watching the footage, he felt both violated and the violator. He was shocked and horrified. But what did he expect? After all, some things never leave you.