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I Know It When I See It

The terrifying images have become ubiquitous in recent months. Men in orange jumpsuits kneeling before a camera, with a specter draped in black at their shoulder. The black-costumed specter waving a knife and issuing threats, the threats offered in English with a British accent. Then, unimaginably, using that knife to deliver death.

At first, just one man at a time. Then two. Then the violence shifted. Another orange-suited man, this one soaked with gasoline and waiting in a cage for the inevitable fire. Then the violence escalated. Nearly two dozen men in orange marched along a beach, each flanked by their own shadowy executioner.

This brutal slaying of hostages—journalists, humanitarian aid workers, a prisoner of war, Coptic Christians kidnapped in a foreign country in which they had sought work—is, of course, just one aspect of the carnage wrought over the past year by the terrorist cell calling itself “the Islamic State.” We have also been deluged with reports of villages in Iraq and Syria being emptied, the refugees chased up into the mountains, left to die of hunger and thirst. Women and children assaulted, sold into sexual slavery. Muslims being murdered; Christians being crucified.

For the purpose of this blog post though, I want to narrow the focus onto just one aspect of this horror: The dissemination of the images of these murders to the West by the Islamic State. Because that dissemination is being aided and abetted in the West—not necessarily by news organizations, which arguably have a duty to report these evils, but by private individuals using social media to share photos and videos of these terrible crimes with friends, family, and the general public.

A friend of mine, who worked for decades as a journalist, has a name for the images of slaughter. She calls it “death porn.”

A definition of pornography

It may seem strange to identify images of human slaughter as pornography, a term usually restricted to the publication of images of sexual acts. So, let’s take a step back and look at the definition of pornography from a legal and a religious perspective.

In 1964, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, in his concurring opinion to Jacobellis v. Ohio, wanted to both acknowledge that “hard-core pornography” exists and that the test case then under review by the Supreme Court (The Lovers by Louis Malle) was not, in his opinion, hard-core porn and therefore should not be censored. Justice Stewart wrote:

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ["hard-core pornography"], and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.

“I know it when I see it” became, in fact, a shorthand description for when “a speaker attempts to categorize an observable fact or event, although the category is subjective or lacks clearly defined parameters.”

Justice Stewart has been both praised and ridiculed for “I know it when I see it.” After all, pornography can be objectively defined, despite Stewart’s attempt to reduce it to his own subjective feeling about it. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines pornography this way:

Pornography consists in removing real or simulated sexual acts from the intimacy of the partners, in order to display them deliberately to third parties. It offends against chastity because it perverts the conjugal act, the intimate giving of spouses to each other. It does grave injury to the dignity of its participants (actors, vendors, the public), since each one becomes an object of base pleasure and illicit profit for others. It immerses all who are involved in the illusion of a fantasy world. It is a grave offense. Civil authorities should prevent the production and distribution of pornographic materials (CCC 2354).

The Catechism‘s definition of pornography is limited to considering pornography as an offense against sexual chastity. But perhaps there are images of other kinds of acts that qualify as pornography because they have been ripped from their original context and displayed to third parties for the purpose of creating a visceral emotional response in those who view them.

I believe that the images of these despicable crimes are being created by the Islamic State for the purpose of inspiring terror in the West. It is not enough for these evil fiends to brutally murder; the images produced are just as important to them. To the extent that these images are being shared for no necessary purpose by private individuals through social media, we collaborate in these acts of terror by continuing to circulate these graphic images of death for the terrorists.

The sharing of images

Of course, not all sharing of these images is unnecessary. There are cases in which these images not only can be shared but must be shared. Here are a few of those groups who have a need to gather, view, and share these images.

Law enforcement. Anyone who is directly involved in bringing the terrorists committing these crimes to justice has a need to gather and view these images. Indeed, they may even have a need to view these images many times because repeated viewings may yield more clues that will be helpful in apprehending the killers.

The justice system. If the killers happen to be brought to trial, then all those involved in prosecuting the crimes will need to view these images as evidence. In one sense, these images can be considered crime scene photos. Crime scene photos are often presented to juries with extreme care taken to prepare the jury members for what they will see. Jurors are reminded of their oath to participate in the pursuit of justice, and warned of the graphic nature of the images.

The military/intelligence community. For much the same reasons law enforcement officials need to have access to these images, military and intelligence agencies working to stop terrorist activity also have a need to gather these images and study them closely.

News organizations. Journalists have the duty to report news. Whatever else these horrible crimes are, they are news, and disseminating the news to the world serves the purpose of shedding light in dark corners so that the truth may be known. Of course, there is also an unfortunate “entertainment” aspect to television and Internet news organizations, driven by the need for ratings and advertisement revenue. That all too often means that more attention than is strictly necessary will be given to stories that will shock and awe the audience. But it doesn’t negate the fact that the news must be reported.

Families. Sometimes family members of victims feel a duty to watch what happened to their loved one; to bear witness, so to speak. If a family member feels the need to do so, that is his or her right.

The effects of death porn

Who does not need to see these images? Your friends and family on Facebook and the general public on Twitter. When these images are shared for no necessary purpose to people who do not need to see them, that is when they become death porn. And what are some of the effects of this unnecessary sharing of these images?

Callousness. When we see these images over and over, they lose their ability to shock us. They lose their ability to create horror in us. And the terrorists know that. Why else do you think that the violence captured in these videos has shifted from beheading to burning alive, and escalated from one man to two men to two dozen? Just as sexual pornography must escalate over time to achieve the same levels of arousal in those who view it, so the death porn has been escalating in order to ramp up the terror in those who see it.

Loss of perspective. On Ash Wednesday, an essay circulated on Facebook in which the writer lamented that she feared her own Lenten observance would be lacking in comparison to what the twenty-one Coptic Christians beheaded by the Islamic State days before had endured. Included as an illustration for the essay was a photo of the men on the beach immediately before their martyrdom.

These men had just been viciously murdered, their families were grieving, their nation was mourning, the world was reeling from the shock, and this writer’s essay concerned how this sacrifice made her feel in regard to her Lenten observance. Christians have found inspiration in the heroism of the saints and martyrs for two millennia, but in this case I thought the immediate aftermath of this tragic event might not have been the best time for publishing this reflection. 

“Othering.” After the Jordanian pilot was burned alive in a cage, I found a discussion on Facebook in which the claim was made that this was “real” torture. Acts committed by the U.S., specifically waterboarding, were not. I was met with outrage when I responded, “The reason for that [assessment], of course, is because we waterboard. When we start burning men alive in cages, I fully expect to be told that is not torture either.”

Demands I explain myself flew my way. How could I possibly claim that the U.S. would ever burn someone alive? When I gave multiple examples of the U.S. doing just that, not to one man alone in a cage but to hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children in major cities—the firebombings at Dresden, the atomic bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki—these examples were dismissed as irrelevant. Our own evils can be minimized while the evils of others are magnified.

What can we do?

Martyrs, my friend, have to choose between being forgotten, mocked or used. As for being understood—never (Albert Camus).

Hiding from or turning away from this horror is not an option. But surely there is some middle ground to be found between the extremes of refusing to see or name evil for what it is and circulating death porn under the guise of “informing the world.” Here are suggestions for ways I have found helpful to find a balance in the midst of this evil.

Avoid sharing the images, whenever possible. If you are sharing a news story or opinion piece on social media about these tragedies, remove any thumbnail images that appear with the news link. Warn your friends and family that such images appear in the original source so they will be adequately prepared before they click, or can choose to not click if they have already seen enough. Everyone should respect everyone else’s choice to see.

Sometimes there is a need for sharing the images. But that should be done with fear and trembling, and a constant examination of conscience. Once, I shared one of the images. I included a photo from the video of the death of American journalist, James Foley, in my blog post A Few Last Words. At the time the post was published, a few weeks after Mr. Foley’s death, the image seemed appropriate in the context of discussing how those being murdered by terrorists were being forced to speak from a script rather than allowed their own final words. If I had it to do over again though, I might well choose another image as an illustration.

Avoid looking at the images, whenever possible. Keep scrolling past the images in your newsfeed, hide them if necessary. Do not worry that you won’t see what you need to see. In fact, you may find that there will be one image you can’t not see that will get burned in your mind and act as an icon for all of the horror. If you have not sought out the images, then the one image you do remember may not even be graphic in itself.

For example, the icon of the horror for me was an image taken from the video of the murder of James Foley. There was nothing graphic in that single still image. It was simply a close-up photo of Mr. Foley visibly swallowing, obviously waiting for the knife and trying to maintain his composure. That image is still in my mind—in part, I think, because I have done everything I can to avoid graphic images of all those who have been so brutally slain.

Remember to speak of the victims with compassion. Compassion is not the same thing as pity. Compassion means “to suffer with.” We may never be able to fully comprehend the suffering the victims endured, but we can honor them and keep their memory alive. We can do so not by plastering images of their deaths across social media, but by speaking of them with respect, with discretion, with an understanding that words alone are inadequate. We can be inspired by their example and their heroism, but avoid superficial comparisons to our own circumstances. We can avoid exploiting the victims as handy tools for bashing politicians we dislike. We can support their grieving families by refusing to unnecessarily circulate images that will only prolong the families’ agony.

“I know it when I see it”

Justice Potter Stewart did not have death porn in mind when he coined his famous legal aphorism. But however inadequate his aphorism is for defining porn, there is a certain truth contained in it. Subjective feeling may not be entirely reliable or objective, but neither can it be entirely dismissed as irrelevant. We can know porn when we see it—whether that porn consists of sexual acts ripped from their rightful context and displayed to third parties, or consists instead of other acts captured in images intended to arouse and inflame the public. We know it, and we do not need to see it.

 

Written By Michelle Arnold










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