Earlier this week, we learned it was possible to witness a captive of ISIS being burned to death. Soon afterwards, I concluded I had no interest in doing so. An anecdotal Internet browse made me suspect others feel differently. (Obviously, anyone on the Internet can find as much torture and death pornography as they wish, so that’s nothing new.) The question is, should we watch video of Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasaesbeh being burned to death? Or the previous beheading videos? Is there some reason it’s important to witness this skin-crawling brutality?
TV news is most often an echo chamber, and a grand arena that treats the banal and the life or death aspects of politics as the same type of tedious sporting event. News needs more blood, if only to remind people what the stakes of politics can be. But does it need this blood, and this blood only? Why does it feel rotten to know that Fox will show these images, and very few other grisly ones that are just as newsworthy?
Fox News’ Bret Baier said stills from the burning video are "the reality of Islamic terrorism" and "We feel you need to see it…." In this space, I have previously argued for the good that can come of war photos. But that piece was inspired by the ghastly and brilliant piece of antiwar propaganda War Against War! which contains some of the most graphic photos of war injuries I have ever seen. It shows the real horror delivered from even a 100-year-old conflict. World War I is very far away from us now, especially in America. But War Against War! contains photographs that make you sick. The gentleman’s war, the distant war is just as bloody as any other. That is important.
That is the lesson that needs learning. And that is also the lesson when you hold up photos of dead Iraqi or Pakistani children who are collateral damage. It’s a cold, untidy cudgel to be used so that people understand that after the bombs are done falling, the survivors don’t necessarily give a damn how enlightened the domestic policies of the people dropping them were. Graphic photos of what the US or any of the good guys has done strip away the moral high ground at least somewhat. And they remind people that their labor, their money, and their tacit support is going to this death.
The newsman’s argument for showing ISIS videos is that if it happened, we should watch it. But the purpose of skewering war is to remove its hideously genteel face. We all know that a theocratic terror-mob that burns people alive is bad. They may have their own stories to tell about their righteousness. Enlightenment ideals and any kind of basic humanity says they’re acting as monsters. Do we need to see their horror movies for any reason except to motivate us towards eventually having a war with them? (Or, perhaps to motivate moderate Muslims to oppose ISIS, as a Fox News executive explained. Muslims have been the biggest victims of ISIS to date, which is not something the US media seems keen on remembering all that often.)
But what is the media trying to prove with this display? As Glenn Greenwald astutely noted, "That [ISIS] is indescribably nihilistic and morally grotesque is beyond debate." Saying this is not about being jaded to the horrors that ISIS inflicts. They scare the hell out of me. But it’s good to ask, just what are we going to learn by subjecting ourselves to their videos of torture and death? And whose interests are we serving?
We may not burn prisoners alive in the US. But as Greenwald also notes in his piece, the US and its allies have used missiles, drones, white phosphorus, and napalm on the guilty and the innocent alike. This nation even used nuclear weapons on humans. No other rogue state or terrorist group has managed that feat yet, thankfully. We don’t execute people with fire, just with untested poisons. And they get a trial. We sometimes convict the guilty, and sometimes convict the innocent, but at least there’s a trial.
Bully for us. Better than Hitler was a pretty low bar to cross, but allowed for Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki as shorthand for justified horror. Better than ISIS is a low bar as well. We crossed it, but we’re not quite as distant from them as we’d like to believe. Missiles are not as far off from beheading and burning alive as we’d like to believe.
After the Charlie Hebdo shooting, it felt cold to try and remind people that yeah, this is horrible, but why is it MORE horrible than any other killing? It’s the same issue here. The pro-war or even the war-neutral have the dominant narrative. They get to imply that if you’re not 100 times more horrified by terrorism as by war, you must support the former. Their framing makes the conversation, and suddenly you’re the callous monster for objecting to nuking cities or for wanting to explain blowback. But if you’re working to undermine the fraudulent moral high ground of war, you sometimes have no choice but to prioritize what the good guys are doing or did in previous conflicts.
People have died slowly and painfully thanks to American wars. The US, for its myriad flaws, is obviously a much, much better place to live in than the Islamic State. But that doesn’t mean we can call it a day and go home. It means we need to continue asking why it’s vital to watch our enemies torture men, but it’s so difficult to find videos of our own atrocities – much less get anyone to give a damn about them.
Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and a columnist for VICE.com. She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at www.thestagblog.com.