Who wins if you watch the video? Not you. Most likely, you get a sick feeling in your stomach, and later, a memory of something terrible, tough to dislodge. Piers Morgan argues that watching it fuels outrage at Isis. More Muslims, he says, should do so – so that they, sluiced through with grief and outrage, take the fight to the militants who now occupy much of Iraq and Syria. But do Muslims - or Christians, atheists, Jews or Buddhists - need to watch a man burn alive to find it outrageous? The words outrage. The stills outrage. The video… does more than that.
I won’t watch it primarily because I don’t want to. Nothing political about it. If it was part of my job, I would, of course. But thankfully it’s not. And by clicking on the link, the people who “win” are the same ones you’ll see outside the burning cage. Gurning. Laughing. Videos like this, like Jihadi John’s, are released for strategic purposes. To sow fear abroad, to keep control at home. The strategy isn’t foolproof: more enemies can be created than cowed; Jordan looks ready to take up arms, not drop them. This is certainly the reaction Morgan hopes for. But again, can’t that response, that strengthening of resolve, be generated without watching a piece of propaganda that, for every time it gets replayed, brings a smile to the face of an Isis social media editor?
And if Isis gains, there are people who suffer for it. The BBC does not show the moment of anyone’s death, as it constitutes an invasion of privacy. There is something troubling about spectating online as a stranger passes away, in any circumstances; perhaps it feels taboo because of a divide between the banal medium – a video-sharing website, Twitter – and the importance of what it is showing: no religious allegiance is needed to feel that the moment of death touches something sacred. To watch a murder, the sense of crossing a boundary that ought not to be only rises.
Efforts to remember Muath al-Kasaesbeh as he might want to be – in uniform, with his family – resist the attempt by Isis to make the pilot a pawn in their crusade. Sara, the sister of Nick Berg, a US businessman captured and beheaded in Iraq in 2004, felt that nobody should watch the video put out by the Islamist militants who killed him. Its availability “feels the same as it always has,” she said, “horrifying, disgusting, and sad…At the time it happened, law enforcement officials needed to view it to obtain evidence for criminal prosecution purposes, but at this point, they have done that”.
Other family members who find themselves in the same awful situation speak likewise. That doesn’t mean these videos should be erased; and some, including Nick Berg’s father, believe that the historical record must stand, available to anyone who wants to watch. But it does mean that – before you click – you should remember that there might be people as opposed to you doing so as the likes of Isis are pro it.
It is a comparison sometimes made, but there is a difference between watching the footage from Belsen in 1945 and watching this today. The Nazis hid their crimes. News cameras exposed them to the world. Those images scar, as they should. Show some reels in a classroom and no pupil will forget. An atrocity so large it defies comprehension becomes, at the margins, glimpsable. Words, even still images, cannot have the same effect.
But the world does not need to watch a single man burning in a cage; a piece of theatre put on by a band of irredeemable sadists. No school would show it in full; documentary-makers, museum-directors – one suspects they wouldn’t either. We know it happened. We know who wants us to watch. That is enough.
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