Snuff Movies, Death on the Beach and Slaughter in the Mosque: Humanity is Better than That
A few days ago I watched the ISIS video that showed the execution of three groups of people – one by incineration in a car, the second by drowning, and the third by simultaneous decapitation. To admit to watching such material feels like confessing that you have a pornography habit. Which corrodes the soul more? It depends on the watcher, I suppose.
What shocked me was not the screaming of the people trapped in the car as the executioner fires an RPG at it, or the sight of one of the drowned men exhaling foamy water from his lungs as he is lifted out of the swimming pool in a padlocked cage, or the moment when the explosive cable rips the heads off the line of kneeling men in their orange jumpsuits.
What shocked me was how unshocked I was. I am not a snuff movie addict. But images of dead and wounded people from places of conflict are so easily available both on the internet and even in the mainstream media that I, and I suspect many others, have become desensitised. These days what was previously only visible to those who fought on battlefields or experienced acts of violence against civilians is available to anyone with an internet broadband connection.
Even if we don’t browse the web, we only have to look at the front page of a newspaper to find pictures of a shattered man in a bloodstained thobe on the pavement outside the mosque that was bombed in Kuwait. Or the image of a woman in a bikini on a Tunisian beach with two clearly visible bullet holes in her arm.
I come from a culture in which death, like sex, used to be the great taboo. If our parents (other than those who fought in wars) witnessed the moment of death or the days and hours preceding it, the context would be the passing of a loved one. After death, the body, for those who wished to view it, would be neatly laid out, and, thanks to the mortician’s craft, as close to a representation of the living person as it was possible to be rendered. Those who were disfigured, mutilated or dismembered at the moment of their death would not be on view.
That’s still the case today, except that anyone wanting to know what violent death looks like only needs a few mouse clicks for their imagination to be replaced with reality.
So I wasn’t shocked by the ISIS video. But I was struck by the demeanour of the condemned men. A number of them were featured making “confessions” of complicity with the Iraqi government apparatus. Although I couldn’t understand what they were saying, they looked almost relaxed as they spoke – as if they were being interviewed for a job. Had they been assured that their cooperation would save their lives? Perhaps, but even at the point of death they seemed calm and resigned. Afraid, yes, but strangely under control. What was going through their minds? Had they given up the struggle and made their peace with God? That was the obvious explanation.
While the destruction of a human being, whether by violence or natural causes, is no longer a mystery for those who wish to witness it, the behaviour of the mind is a different matter altogether. It’s hard to imagine the onset of death unless you have gone to the edge and lived to tell the tale. Unless you have been on the battlefield – or are terminally ill – it’s hard to imagine how it feels to know that you have a good chance of dying in the following minutes, hours, days or months – just as those ISIS prisoners did.
Those who died in Kuwait and Tunisia will not have been able to come to terms with imminent death. Like most of us, they probably thought about their end far less than the vital processes of living – eating, drinking, hoping, struggling and making love.
Hundreds of years ago, in the age of plagues, primitive medicine and brutish lives, death was all around us. We consoled ourselves with belief in the afterlife, and in our notional relationship with God. Today, in that half of the world where religion is losing its grip on our lives, is the resurgence of death as a pervasive feature in our lives changing our attitude towards dying? Are the snuff videos, the awful images of suffering humans in boats on the Mediterranean, of bodies in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya forcing us to re-examine the meaning of life? Turning us back to religion perhaps? Or channelling us into a myriad of spiritual outlets evident at Glastonbury and other summer festivals?
I can only speak for myself. As someone in my sixties I’m closer to the end of my natural span than most of the world’s population. Not a day goes by when I don’t think about death. Not obsessively – just the occasional reflection that mortality is closer than it was. That said, I’m not at the point where I might be tempted to hedge my bets by reaching out to the god I moved away from many decades ago. Nor do I look for some emotionally comforting alternative to the god of Moses.
But I still draw inspiration from the Christian values I grew up with. With more time for reflection than was once the case, I find myself feeling more compassionate, more easily moved by the plight of others. Also less judgemental of human failings, including my own.
At other times I’m swept away by tsunamis of rage at cruelty, stupidity and pig-headedness, especially on the part of individuals and institutions in certain parts of the world where life seems to be of less value than ideology. But when the rage passes I find myself reflecting that even the worst of men and women have some redeeming features, or at least some potential for redemption. If it were not so would we not go through our lives blind to our own faults because we can’t accept that we are beyond redemption?
And if human life is simply a matter of biological computers with varying degrees of malfunction, whose programming – designed to sustain our species – unravels catastrophically when subjected to certain stresses, surely the hardware and software would have evolved more efficiently by now, such that we don’t produce suicide bombers, polluters, child abusers, torturers and people who devise methods of decapitating six people simultaneously?
With apologies to Mr Spock, I can only make sense of the mystery by concluding that there’s divinity out there, but not as we know it. Or at least not as I know it.
So even if Richard Dawkins would reduce us to atoms, molecules, bits and bytes, I – whatever the mechanics of my existence – still rejoice in what others might see as evidence of divinity: compassion and care, laughter and sadness, the endless cycle of the seasons, the joy of birdsong and the freshness of things in the early summer.
I’m moved when Barack Obama sings Amazing Grace at the funeral of the pastor gunned down by a racist shooter in South Carolina because of the embracing sense of communal humanity that shines out from the video; I wonder at acts of selflessness and love where none should logically exist. I marvel at the works of man and nature, even if I find it hard to attribute them to some all-seeing entity that sits apart and orchestrates from another plane.
And when I think about that ISIS video, about the worshippers in Kuwait, the decapitated man in France and the bodies on the Tunisian beach, I wish I could reach out to those who carried out such acts and convince them that they are better than that, that humanity is better than that, and that goodwill in this life should never be subordinated to rewards that might be granted in whatever hereafter awaits us.