So the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) scored another gory “cinematic hit” last week when it broadcast footage of its murder of Jordanian pilot Moaz Al-Kasasbeh. But the broadcasting of this video also engendered in us some strange, uncomfortable feelings: that the other recently filmed executions carried out by the group—being “mere” beheadings—were much more merciful than the tragic, abhorrent fate the group doled out to the Jordanian pilot. These disturbing thoughts show us how truly successful ISIS has been in shaking us up, and, sadly, in capturing our attention and focusing it on the group’s own larger narrative. Unfortunately, many on the Internet will find in these unprecedented and slickly produced visual odes to violence something that will draw them to the screen, even if only in condemnation.
What we are talking about here is a narrative, and how that narrative is presented to us. But those writing this narrative—among them those “scriptwriters,” “cinematographers” and “sound technicians” who bring you those despicable videos—don’t care if we support or condemn it; what they want is for us to watch in a state of fear, for the hairs on the backs of our necks to stand on end, and for our imaginations to writhe and suffer, much like Moaz Al-Kasasbeh did, while watching a man burn to death.
To watch or not to watch, to broadcast or not to broadcast? Between these two choices lies all the ambivalence we faced last week with this video: Is it morally justified for us to watch the precision and accuracy with which this video’s “director” was able to capture the shock in Kasasbeh’s eyes as he was being led out to meet his grisly end? Do we even have the ability to check our curiosity and resist the almost unbearable temptation to spy on methods of death we can perhaps only imagine in our worst nightmares? Even if we do succeed here, our imaginations, over which we have little to no control, will always be able to see what our eyes did not.
Whatever one’s choice in the end, there is no doubt that our viewing, sharing and talking about these videos gives ISIS exactly what it desires. Whoever watches them finds themselves gripped by a perverse kind of curiosity, one that compels them to seek out the true extent of the horrors this group is actually capable of. Mixed in with this, though, will also be feelings of awe—and this is where the true danger of watching these videos lies. The fact here is that the hesitation experienced when faced with the prospect of having to watch one of these videos does not excuse the conscious choice that is then made to actually do so. When one watches, one becomes complicit in the crime documented, also inadvertently becoming part of ISIS’s wider narrative. And now we are all facing this choice; not just the media, but also ordinary individuals.
A decision not to watch or broadcast ISIS’s videos and those like them is a practical one, especially since they are providing us with what can certainly be described as newsworthy content (no matter how abhorrent it is). The opposite decision, however, brings one to a dangerous precipice in the world of journalism and media, and teetering on this edge cannot be excused through the prefacing of any broadcast material of this sort with the usual “Warning: graphic images” or “Not suitable for those of a sensitive disposition”—after all, the strange lure of these Hollywood-style “graphic images” is the main weapon used by ISIS to spread them.
Some, however, see this matter as being somewhat less innocuous and contend that watching and spreading these videos is simply a matter of “viewing for educational purposes only”—in the sense that the broadcast material helps us learn about the true diabolical nature of this group. But are we truly in need of these videos now to know this? Haven’t we learned enough already about what this group can do? What more do we need?
ISIS’s crime begins with an instrument of death and a camera; ours begins the moment we watch, broadcast, share, comment on, or become affected by the videos the group produces. Thousands have been killed all around us in the region, but their memories and images have not been singed into our minds, nor present in our consciousness at all because they have not appeared as “stars” in a new ISIS video. These videos have now turned our news websites and social media timelines into dark, ugly places where we meet briefly to watch these horrors, mechanically and unwittingly taking part in ISIS’s bloody theater, and the wider macabre dance of reaction and counter-reaction to which these videos belong.
We don’t need ISIS’s videos to be aware of how truly violent and bloody this group can be. Giving them more attention than they deserve, or even being awed by them—even if this comes spiked with heavy doses of condemnation and horror—can have the effect of sidelining from our minds the deaths of countless others who have been spared a close-up in an original ISIS production.
Broadcasting ISIS’s videos only makes them stronger. The only solution is a boycott.