Barely a day passes when another horrific video doesn’t emerge from Syria, showing either the “rebels” or government forces engaged in some act of terrorism/death/flesh eating.
I first heard about the Syrian rebel who was supposed to have eaten a heart on Monday, when a friend who lives in Beirut tweeted something cryptic about abuse videos. Against my better instincts, I opened one of the links he attached to his tweet. It showed soldiers (or was it militia members? Rebels? It can be hard to tell in Syria, sometimes) beating prisoners, whipping them with ropes. In the YouTube sidebar, there were a host of other videos, some tagged in Arabic and others in English, broadcasting their sickening contents: “18+, Basher Assad Soldiers Mutilating,” and so forth. After the warnings about graphic content, whatever video there is simply rolls, and whoever has chosen to click on it, whether over or under eighteen, watches it, and then lives with what he or she has seen.
Such videos have increasingly come to represent a new weapon in modern wars-by-terror. The phenomenon is not unique to Syria. One recent, much-commented-on video depicts the decapitation-by-chainsaw of a Mexican gang member by rival narcos. Violent networks around the world seem to have taken inspiration from Al Qaeda in their efforts to terrorize captive societies by filming, and broadcasting, the executions of their enemies. This began, to my knowledge, when Al Qaeda filmed Daniel Pearl’s decapitation, in 2002, and was followed, during the Iraq War, with a raft of real-life snuff videos courtesy of Al Qaeda and its allies: Margaret Hassan, a kidnapped British relief worker; the young American Nicholas Berg; many who got less attention because they were not Westerners. How many have we heard described in news reports since then? Usually, our television channels and newspapers have shown discretion, and what we have seen is, at most, merely a screenshot of the hostage looking abjectly into the camera—but we all know what came next. Most of us, I suppose, never think of actually looking up the video that shows the deaths themselves, because that would be prurient, brutal, and yet we all know they are out there. And, no doubt, there are plenty of people who do look for them.
It’s sobering to acknowledge that, for a previous generation of television viewers—not so long ago—the most terrifying thing they had ever seen (and for many it induced enduring fears) was the shower scene in “Psycho.” That’s so much “Captain Kangaroo” compared to what we can watch today, and if there were ever any question that what one sees on a screen has before-and-after consequences, consider these videos from the world’s killing grounds. If you want to see what someone looks like as he is stabbed, as he is told he is about to die, as he is beaten to death, or cut into pieces, it is all just a click away.
Once, some years ago in Iraq, where I was spending long periods of time reporting, I decided I had to look at one of these videos. Kidnapping and decapitation in front of a video camera was the nightmare fate that potentially awaited all of us there, and, on a Web site that offered a couple of dozen, I chose one at random to watch. It depicted the decapitation of a middle-aged Turkish trucker whose crime had been to carry cargo between Turkey and Baghdad, which was then under American military control. According to Al Qaeda’s extreme interpretation of what made an enemy, his was a crime that merited death, for the goods he ferried to Baghdad meant that the American troops, or the puppet government they defended, would be equipped with toilet paper, or mineral water, or gasoline.
In war, you kill a man, and, to take away the fear that you feel, you objectify him, you humiliate him, before or after his death; you exult in his death; you persuade yourself you have truly conquered him. This ritual is as old as mankind, and it is something we unlock every time we go to war, or cheerlead others into fighting a war for us. Maybe ninety-nine out of a hundred soldiers, or some even greater number, will limit themselves to doing what they have to do, and kill because they must, because their society asks them to, telling them that it is us and them, or because everyone around them is doing it, too, and because of the belief that if they don’t, they will be killed. But some number will also feel the need to desecrate the corpse, will pose for photos with it, will cut off an extremity, or eat a part of that body in an attempt to vanquish not just the flesh of the dead victim but his spirit, too—and, perhaps, destroy their own.