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Should We Watch ISIS Horror Videos — or Look Away?

As the Islamic State releases video after video, each more appalling than the next, in what is surely the YouTube channel from hell – the world seems to have divided into those of us who choose to watch the atrocities and those of us who don’t.

Members of the first group are making a choice to view appalling images that can’t ever be unseen and inevitably haunt one long afterwards – heads being hacked off of bodies of American, British and Japanese journalists and aid workers, Syrian men being tossed off tall buildings and splattered below for the crime of being suspected homosexuals and now, the inhuman spectacle of Jordanian pilot Muath Al-Kasaesbeh being burnt alive inside a cage.

What is really compelling about the decision whether or not to click “play” on these gory scenes is that convincing arguments can be mustered for either choice. Let’s explore them.

Why we should watch

No problem has ever been fixed in this world as a result of people looking away from it. Certainly, in order to confront horror and brutality on a large scale, it must be seen – to the extent it can be seen. Now, in the normal course of things in modern history, organized and clever evil-doers did their best to conceal their actions so they could get away with them for as long as possible. The Nazis kept their extermination camps as secret as they possibly could, succeeding to a remarkable extent, allowing them to carry out a horrifically substantial portion of their “Final Solution.” After the war, so many Europeans who directly or indirectly assisted the Third Reich, defended themselves after the full extent of their crimes were unveiled with the cry, “We didn’t know!”

The excuse of not knowing has run rampant in our time, as atrocities tend to be concealed as much as possible. In the former Soviet Union, enemies of the state were shipped off to Siberia. Military juntas like in Argentina in the 1970’s were responsible for making thousands simply “disappear.” Today, the vast majority of torture and executions perpetrated by governments take place invisibly behind prison walls.

So in their twisted way, ISIS is doing the world a favor by putting its true nature on display for all to see. They are not hiding their evil actions, they are showcasing it, with a bloodthirsty pride that reminds us of scenes from long-ago history or ancient-kingdom inspired fiction like Game of Thrones, where entrances to conquered cities are lined with crucified bodies and heads on spikes.

Displayed in front of us so blatantly, how dare we to turn our heads and avoid confronting the terrible reality? It can easily be argued that only by bearing witness to the brutality can spur the world to move against it. The act of watching makes every one of us accountable for that action, or inaction.

Piers Morgan, writing in the Daily Mail, summed up the “watch” argument well, after he viewed the video of the Jordanian pilot’s execution.

It was just as repulsive and sickening as I feared it would be. Truly the worst thing I have ever had to witness, and as a journalist for 30 years I’ve seen a lot of unpleasant things. But I’m actually glad I watched it. Glad I saw in real time, on professionally-crafted movie-quality video, exactly what these monsters are capable of. Glad I know they have no limits, no humanity, no semblance of any kind of soul.

Glad I saw the undisguised joy in their evil little faces as they perpetrated such a despicable act on a fellow human being. Glad they repeatedly switched the camera shot from blow-torch to their victim’s face so we can be under no illusion what utter sadists they are.I’m glad about all this because it allows me to feel such uncontrollable rage that no amount of reasonable argument will ever temper it. And that’s precisely what we all have to feel now towards ISIS and those who support its hideous activities.We all have to feel the same kind of unquantifiable, collective horror everyone felt when the full scale of the Nazi concentration camps was revealed.

Why we shouldn’t watch

Morgan did confess that before watching the video, his “finger hovered over the “click” button” in indecision. His hesitation was justified.

There are some legitimate reasons to refrain from watching these videos. The strongest argument as I see it: the fact that ISIS is doing its best to make us watch. It seems logical that any action these insane warlords want to happen needs to be avoided like the plague.

The killings are being carefully staged, filmed, edited and distributed in order to spread the Islamic State’s message as widely as possible and spread the maximal level of terror – they are, after all, terrorists. Before they meet their horrific fates, the group’s helpless captives are being forced to parrot their political lines meant for our ears. Isn’t it is obscene and wrong for us to cooperate by obediently clicking, listening to the dying words of these doomed men and then witnessing their executions? Doesn’t it, in some way make us collaborators, cooperating with the group by executing with our fingers, the final step in their master plan?

Interestingly enough, it doesn’t seem to break down among political lines. Some of my friends who advocate the strongest action against ISIS are non-watchers. They contend that it does dishonor to the victims to watch their lives be so brutally snuffed out, that there is little benefit to the superiority of viewing them over reading detailed descriptions of the acts that are easily available in the media by those, like Morgan, who have watched.

Deciding not to watch the videos is an act of both self-preservation and respect. Every time we look at a beheading, stoning, crucifiction or burning, it desensitizes us a little more to the horror and brings us just a bit closer to the level of the perpetrators.

And the verdict?

I have been, and remain, in the “refuse to view” camp, though I don’t rule out watching them in the future if I feel there is a real need to do so. For now, the edited versions of the videos which are broadcast on the news and the detailed written descriptions in news reports are sufficient to absorb the horror.

I really, truly, wish I could know what James Foley, David Haines, Steven Sotloff, Alan Henning, Hervé Gourdel, Peter Kassig, Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Goto, and the countless other victims whose deaths were filmed would want me to do.

Before they died facing the cameras, did they hope every person possible would see the horror of their last moments and be spurred to action? Or did the indignity of dying on camera add insult to injury? Would they beg me to turn away and remember them for how they lived and not how they died.

Whichever way they instructed me to look – that’s where my gaze would go.

Unfortunately, their final wishes – the one piece of information that would help me make a final decision – is sadly impossible to obtain.

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