I have seen about 20 executions in the last 17 years
WHAT we find shocking depends largely upon what we are exposed to daily and what we come to experience as normal. In a world in which everything is not only showable but shown, nothing shocks – and where nothing shocks, everything is permissible.
So Facebook's original decision to permit, in effect, the universal dissemination of real beheadings to anyone with eyes to look at a screen is a contribution to the brutalisation of the world and ultimately a blow against the freedom of expression to which the company claims to be devoted.
For where restraint does not come from within, eventually it must be imposed from without. And we already live in quite authoritarian enough a world without giving the authorities a genuine moral locus standi to control us further.
The internet giant has subsequently altered its stance, but only time will tell.
Prurience and the desire for sensation are inherent in human beings.
That certain images should not be widely disseminated is a principle of any civilised society. This is not the same as saying that shocking images should never be shown in public, though when they are morally acceptable and when not is a delicate question, perhaps unsusceptible, like most such questions, to a definitive answer. It largely depends on the spirit in which they are shown.
In the days when I had a taste for danger I went to the centre of the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) rebellion in Peru. The entire society was terrorised, and with good reason. I have never experienced foreboding like it.
WHILE there I took some photographs of what Sendero had done. The photographs were such as would make any decent person tremble, and I still tremble to think of them now. They were of things so terrible that I will not describe them, for now, fortunately, there would be no point in doing so.
At the time, however, I was passionately convinced that the world should see them to grasp the enormity of what was happening in Peru.
Only then would the world understand that the victory of the Peruvian government, very imperfect as it undoubtedly was, in the civil war against Sendero was of the utmost importance.
I took the photographs to a serious newspaper in London that ran a colour supplement. To my great disgust, it refused to publish them: the editor said that they would be too disturbing to the readership. And in the event, of course, they would have served no purpose, for Sendero was defeated.
Was the newspaper's decision correct? I am still not sure. But I am equally sure that if it had published the pictures, it would have been in a very different spirit from that of showing beheadings on Facebook.
There would have been a serious purpose in doing so; the pictures would have caused no delighted giggles. They would have shocked a serious readership.
In 1856, there was a Parliamentary Report from the Select Committee of the House of Lords: "To take into Consideration the present Mode of carrying into effect CAPITAL PUNISHMENTS".
In other words, the effects of public executions on those who witnessed them. The report was published one month after 30,000 people had turned out in Stafford – many more than the town's population – to see the hanging of William Palmer, known as the Prince of Poisoners.
The Select Committee asked the Superintendent of the City of London Police whether he had any opinion on the effect of witnessing executions: "I am of opinion," he said, "from what I have witnessed, that a public execution hardens the feelings of those who see it. I have felt the effect upon my own mind. I have seen about 20 executions during the last 17 years. In the first instance, I found that it dwelt upon my mind – there was a dread attending it, which gradually diminished with each execution, till I looked on it almost with indifference . . ."
I doubt that things would be any different now. Moreover, if some perverted people actually want notoriety under cover of ideological righteousness, as is the case, the possibility that their activities might be posted on Facebook for all to see could encourage them further.
If so, Mark Zuckerberg and the staff at Facebook will be accessories before and after the fact. (© Daily Telegraph, London)