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To view or not to view?

PEPE DON"T PREACH - Pepe Diokno (The Philippine Star) - February 28, 2015 - 12:00am

When I was in high school, I saw a beheading. I don’t remember when it happened exactly, but it was between 2002 and 2004, when the United States was waging its “War on Terror” in Afghanistan and Iraq.

I know now that the beheading was either that of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was kidnapped by Taliban sympathizers in Pakistan, or that of Nick Berg, the 26-year-old engineer who was abducted by Al-Qaida-linked militants in Iraq. At the time, however, all I saw was a man sitting helplessly on the floor surrounded by masked murders. They pounced on him, sliced open his neck with a knife and separated it from his body. I remember that the victim didn’t struggle. His face was blank, his body was limp — he was probably sedated. The death that I saw was likely Nick Berg’s, because according to reports, Daniel Pearl was not sedated.

I did not choose to see this beheading. It caught my senses completely by surprise. I was sitting in class at the computer lab; my classmate was the one watching it on his screen and I just happened to look his way. I remember getting this sick feeling, a bloodcurdling feeling — it was as if my insides were flushed out of my body. When the video ended, I couldn’t move. I just looked back at my monitor and stared. What the f*ck, I thought, what the f*ck did I just see? I was 15 or 16 years old.

Ever since, I’ve tried my best to avoid seeing deaths on video, from the executions that came from the Middle East after Pearl’s and Berg’s to any of the decapitations committed by ISIS in the past year. It isn’t because I’m scared to see them. I refuse to watch because I ask myself if it’s necessary for me to watch — if I need to see another human being’s death to know what horrors there are in this world — and my answer has always been no.

That is, until this month.

In the first week of February, a video surfaced showing the death of Moaz al-Kasasbeh, the Jordanian pilot that was burned alive in a cage by ISIS. Two weeks later, another shocking sight spread on the Internet, and this time, its origin was closer to home. It was the cellphone recording of the summary execution of PO2 Joseph Sagonoy, one of the Special Armed Forces members killed in Mamasapano on Jan. 25.

Thumbnails of these videos popped up on my Facebook feed — a neatly-framed screenshot of a man engulfed in flames, and a pixelated image of an officer lying lifeless on the earth. Like the video I saw when I was a teenager, I did not choose to see the thumbnails — friends had posted them faster than Facebook could take them down. Unlike before, however, I found my fingers moving closer to these pictures. As much as it shames me to say this, deep inside of me, I wanted to click.

 

Curiosity

With the ISIS video, what drove me was curiosity. For one thing, there was the unconventionality of the situation — death by burning; an act so cruel and archaic, it seemed incredulous it was being done today. But there was also the allure of the flames; the spectacle of fire. ISIS was tapping into a dark, twisted part of my psyche — the kid in me who liked playing with matches.

With the Mamasapano recording, I began to justify watching it by arguing that it needed to be seen. In the aftermath of the ill-fated encounter, media has been so full of noise from grandstanding politicians and quick-tempered warmongers that the facts of the case have been overshadowed by political agendas. This video represented a way to cut through the crap and see the truth about what happened.

I wrestled with these thoughts for a few days. Things just didn’t sit well with me, though. It couldn’t possibly be right, I thought, to watch the ISIS videos because it would be exactly what ISIS wants. And watching the SAF video would not bring me any closer to the truth — it would only lead me to make angry assumptions.

So, what I did instead was to read as much as I could. I read detailed descriptions of how Moaz al-Kasasbeh watched as flames inched closer and closer to the cage that contained him; how the fire quickly latched on his gas-drenched clothes; how his face writhed in agony as the heat engulfed him; how he screamed; how he curled up in a fetal position and stopped living. I read about how PO2 Joseph Sagonoy lay down on the dirt, trembling; how he struggled for his life; how a hand emerged and shot him with a gun at point-blank range — twice in the head, and then on the chest. I read that there was a man’s voice on the video, and I asked my friend, Mindanao-based filmmaker Teng Mangansakan, for a translation. “This will finish him off, this will kill him for sure!” it said, according to Teng.

I read about all that, and I realized I didn’t need to watch the videos anymore as my curiosity had been satisfied. More importantly, I was left with feelings of sadness, pain, and empathy for the victims and their families, and with this, I developed a burning desire to learn more about the issues.

 

Those who saw

Contrast that with the reactions of my friends who had seen the videos. When one friend texted me to say that he had seen the ISIS snuff film, he quickly changed the topic and started talking about his dinner. When another friend shared the Mamasapano video, he reduced his feelings to a sad face emoticon and ended his post with a call for more bloodshed. These reactions seem almost inhuman to me.

I can only understand those reactions by going back to where I began this column — the first time I saw a beheading. In a way, that experience took away my innocence because, after it, I never saw gore the same away again. I never again got that sick, blood-curdling feeling that came over me when I saw Nick Berg’s head get sliced off. I’ve looked at pictures of the SAF 44 corpses and felt no horror; on the day that I write this, I saw a New York Times documentary that showed the mass killing by ISIS of Egyptians, and I didn’t even flinch.

Perhaps it’s because my mind developed immunity to death videos. It is now able to tell itself, “These are just images. What you’re looking at is a screen. Don’t panic, you are safe.” And therein lies the rub. Whenever we watch these videos, our brains reduce human lives into a set of square pixels, creating a barrier between us and the gore on display. By doing so, we become detached spectators; players in the twisted theater that the murders have staged.

 

Front-row seat

Anthropologist Frances Larson recently wrote about this phenomenon in an article for Salon. “(The videos) draw viewers who watch unapologetically and viewers who watch despite their own deep misgivings, and the Internet offers everyone anonymity,” she says. “The camera promises spectators a degree of detachment, but the action is only a click away, and this combination gives the videos far greater reach.”

Larson continues, “The murderers are offering their viewers a front-row seat at their show; and what they want to show is their strength, their complete control and domination of their victim… The crowd is compliant too. By turning up to see the show, or by searching Google for the latest execution video, the people watching also have their part to play.”

Now, the horrors of this world will continue to spread on the Internet in these tumultuous, hyper-connected times. More and more, we’ll be confronted with the question, “To view or not to view?” The answer, surely, will not always be simple. But my point is this: choosing not to view does not mean turning a blind eye. Many times, it’s the option that allows us to feel, to empathize, to understand, to go deeper, to seek perspective. Many times, it’s the option that gets us to see beyond the screen.

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On that note, if you’re interested in learning more about ISIS, The Atlantic has a long but illuminating piece by Graeme Wood, entitled “What ISIS Really Wants.” The article makes the point that ISIS is a religious group, not a political one, and that it is driven by the belief that it is an agent of the apocalypse. With this in mind, Wood puts forth a few well-researched strategies to stop the group. Read it at http://theatln.tc/1AJt1SC.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Mamasapano incident — and I hope you are — one source that’s a must-follow is journalist Ed Lingao, who has been covering events on the ground with the context and perspective often missing in the news. Follow him at https://facebook.com/edlingao.

* * *

Tweet the author @PepeDiokno.

DANIEL PEARL ISIS JOSEPH SAGONOY MAMASAPANO NICK BERG SAW SEE VIDEO
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