To look or not to look, that is the question of this digital age.
Are you being party to butchery if you watch an ISIS beheading video made with the very hope you will watch it and slickly composed to impart the greatest impact when you do?
Is viewing these videos abetting evil?
On a lesser note, are you participating in a shameful violation of privacy if you view nude photos of Jennifer Lawrence and others that were pilfered and posted by computer hackers?
Is viewing those photos diminishing decency?
The issue of the stolen nudes seems clear. Anybody who calls up those intimate photos of JLaw and her fellow victims is stirred by some variation of what propelled the hackers in the first place.
You just happen to come along after they have done the dirty work.
You surely understand that these stolen images were meant to be intensely private and that they became less so the moment you call them up.
You have to know that you are looking at what the woman never meant for you to see.
Those ISIS videos—first of James Foley and now of Steven Sotloff—were made for you to see.
And that is the problem, though some would argue that refusing to look at evil is tantamount to ignoring it, even when it wants to be seen.
The videos are indeed evidence of evil, as indisputable as the 1955 photograph of 14-year-old Emmett Till that his mother insisted be taken as her only son lay in his coffin. Mamie Till Bradley also had demanded that the casket remain open so the thousands who filed past could see how the racist mob that murdered him for daring to whistle at a white woman had gouged out an eye and smashed in his head and beat him beyond recognition.
“I couldn’t bear the thought of people being horrified by the sight of my son, but on the other hand, I felt the alternative was even worse,” the mother said. “After all, we had averted our eyes for far too long, turning away from the ugly reality facing us as a nation. Let the world see what I’ve seen.”
More than a few mourners fainted at the horrific sight. Almost everyone stepped away in tears.
“Two months ago, I had a nice apartment in Chicago. I had a good job. I had a son,” the mother noted. “When something happened to the negroes in the South I said, ‘That’s their business, not mine.’ Now I know how wrong I was. The murder of my son has shown me that what happens to any of us, anywhere in the world, had better be the business of us all.”
By that same measure six decades later, the ISIS videos could be seen as shocking proof of just how bad these 21st-century bad guys are.
But the ISIS images are not brought to us after the crime by a grieving mother determined to show the world the truth of what happened to her son.
These images were generated by the killers themselves and are not just snuff films produced to satisfy some homicidal fetish or simply to prove the deed had been done.
The intent behind these videos becomes all the more unmistakable when you consider their evolution from a beheading video of a decade ago that was intended primarily for a Muslim audience.
In the 2004 video, 26-year-old American businessman Nick Berg also wears an orange jumpsuit. There is also a masked man in black who issues a statement.
But the statement is in Arabic and written out and so longwinded that the four other masked figures who flank the man in black begin to slump. The setting is in a room that has the look of a hideout such as insurgents would favor. The knife does not come out until the statement is finally done. The actual decapitation is ghoulishly clumsy.
Later that year, three other videos show the man in black decapitating three other men in orange jumpsuits, Americans Jack Hensley and Eugene Armstrong, and Briton Kenneth Bigley.
The man in black was later identified as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of al Qaeda in Iraq. He is said to have received a warning from the overall al Qaeda organization to temper his videos.
“I say to you: that we are in a battle, and that more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media,” the 2005 missive says. “The Muslim populace who love and support you will never find palatable...the scenes of slaughtering the hostages.”
The following year, Zarqawi was killed by an American airstrike. The surviving members of his faction joined with elements of Saddam Hussein’s former military to form the core of what is now ISIS.
Perhaps airstrikes make ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi nervous, given what happened to his predecessor and considering the great effort he has made to avoid being martyred himself. ISIS answered some limited strikes by posting the video that shows Foley kneeling in an orange jumpsuit. A masked man in black gives a statement, but this is in English and brief. He holds a knife as he directly addresses President Obama and the rest of America. The setting is not some room, but an arid expanse of land stretching far in the background, not a hideout but a self-declared caliphate.
The decapitation is not shown, perhaps because the act had proved to require more work than would seem to fit Allah’s will. The man in black warns that Sotloff will suffer the same fate if the airstrikes continue.
In desperation, Sotloff’s mother made a video of her own, begging al-Baghdadi to spare her son’s life. Shirley Sotloff sounded as much a loving mom as was Mamie Till Bradley.
On Tuesday, word came that ISIS had released a video that apparently shows Steven Sotloff being beheaded by the same man in black. The man announces that a Briton will be next.
Like the Foley video, the Sotloff video was intended for an American audience. This means that to watch them is to do exactly what the evil ones want you to do. Everything you are bound to feel is exactly what they hope you will feel, what the setting and the staging are designed to amplify.
To America’s great credit, the videos have not been censored. Americans tend to bristle even at self-censorship; we are reluctant to declare that we simply are not going to look at something.
The prospect of self-censorship also presents itself with the lesser but not unimportant question of the stolen photos. To view these nudes is not quite to abet evil, but it is to undermine decency.
And decency is our great, guiding strength as we face such monstrous foes as ISIS.
The mightiest nation is the one whose people do what is right without needing to be told.
The part of you that knows whether it is wrong to look at those boudoir shots of JLaw is also the part of you that knows how to respond when ISIS seeks to manipulate us.
The answer to the question of whether to look or not to look in this digital age is this:
Look to yourself.