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It's Not News, It's Just Ghoulish

June 12, 2002|MARK BOWDEN | Mark Bowden is the author of "Black Hawk Down" (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1999) and "Killing Pablo" (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2001).

I went to the Boston Phoenix's Web site last week and read its argument for linking readers to the full video of Daniel Pearl's murder. I clicked on the link and watched as Pearl spoke into the camera, acknowledging his Jewishness and other things. Everything was blacked out except Pearl's head. It was clear that his remarks were edited and made under duress, so they were not his own.

Then I turned it off. I didn't have the heart or stomach to watch the rest. I know what happens. His throat is slit and his head is cut off. Even if I hadn't known that already, the Phoenix decorated the article on its Web site with a picture of Pearl's severed head being held aloft.

It filled me with disgust, the act, the video and the newspaper's decision to help make it available. Let's take them one at a time.

The act was a crime, deeply cruel, that was primarily intended to spread fear. The video is designed to make the killers' handiwork public, which helps spread fear and which the killers presumably hope will recruit eager Islamists to their cause.

Unless the world is considerably more depraved than I imagine, it can only backfire in this latter attempt. Surely even those opposed to U.S. policy and our way of life are still human enough to be repulsed by such a display. When I was in Mogadishu in 1997, I met many Somalis who confessed horror and embarrassment at the fact (also captured on film) that angry mobs of their countrymen had dragged the dead bodies of U.S. soldiers through the streets after the 1993 battle of Mogadishu.

At least that was done in anger, after many hundreds of Somalis had been killed. The video of Pearl's execution inhabits a darker realm of depravity. It is calculated, crafted like a work of art. Which is what makes the Phoenix's decision to feature it so wrong.

Decisions about whether to show images of atrocity are always difficult ones for the press. Pictures, especially moving pictures, are often more powerful than words. I had read many times the stories of brave young idealists who opposed the Nazis in the years before World War II, but no words ever stirred me as much as a sequence of photographs in the National D-Day Museum in New Orleans showing the hangings of two, a young man and woman. The look of stoical defiance on their faces in the moments before their deaths is a study in moral courage.

Likewise, the terrible images of dead Americans being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu conveyed better than any story how the American humanitarian effort in Somalia had gone disastrously awry.

Deciding whether to use such images is an exercise in judgment and taste. In modern times, everything gets published or broadcast somewhere. Overall, it's a boon to mankind that technology has made it impossible to control information. It's also a good thing that anyone with access to a computer and modem can disseminate their ideas and their art. But along with the best of human expression, it also invites the worst.

What the Internet lacks, by definition, is editing. Since there is no filter, there is no judgment and no taste. The Internet is where you can find anything.

I agreed with CBS' decision last month to air an edited portion of the Pearl murder video, because the fact that it had been made and posted on the Internet by his killers was news. It revealed much about the character of our nation's enemies. But CBS stopped short of showing Pearl's final humiliating moments, and his beheading.

There is nothing honest about the video. It is not made by a journalist, but a propagandist. Pearl's final words were scripted by his killers, and the images on the video are edited to convey only the message they intend, a narrow focus on horror and gore, like an extreme close-up in a porn flick. It makes sense only as a form of sick shock entertainment, and it puts the Phoenix in the same league as the old tabloids that published gory crime-scene photographs. This video was already out there on the Internet for anyone determined enough to find it. All the Phoenix did was shine a light on it.

There is no question of the paper's right to do so. Even if we wanted to censor the video, we could not.

Millions of Americans get Al Jazeera, the Arab cable news station, in their living rooms. The computer is even more democratic. I knew the moment I learned there was a video of Pearl's murder that it would eventually be available on the Internet. But that alone doesn't mean it's important to watch it.

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