USA TODAY media columnist Rem Rieder / H. Darr Beiser, USA TODAY
In the 1970s, a rumor rose to the level of urban myth that murders - actual murders as they were committed - were being filmed and distributed to a hardcore and in-the-know circle of violence fetishists. These were known as snuff films, suggesting a point-of-no-return depravity.
As it happens, these rumors were likely truer in the media mind - subsequently becoming the plot point of a variety of movies and television shows - than in reality.
But that reality - freely available video footage of actual death with gory dismemberment - is now a near commonplace. The video of journalist James Wright Foley's beheading swept the world before it was largely removed from easy-access viewing. But there is an extraordinary collection of other decapitations for anyone with the least curiosity to see.
This is obviously a phenomenon of war, but it is clearly a phenomenon of the Internet too. Who can reasonably say at this point that the unfiltered ability to distribute gruesome and voyeuristic content does not encourage gruesome and voyeuristic acts? If the Internet does not make the world a more violent place, it certainly makes the violence more theatrical.
The heralded virtue of social media has been as a tool for liberal awakenings and the undermining of oppressive regimes. Now, it has become, in quite an unimaginable fashion, the opposite of that - a tool with which to taunt and sicken the liberal world.
Is the problem the Islamic State or is the problem social media? The question must be fairly posed: How much responsibility does social media bear for the death of Foley and other nameless dismembered souls? (The digital lobby might now echo the NRA: Social media doesn't kill people, people kill people.)
It is not very likely that there would be this growing epidemic of enthusiasm for cutting a living person's throat and then hacking at and twisting his head off if there were no video distribution of the act. The job of executioner has never been a sought-after one. (The other day, in a prison riot in Brazil, two people were beheaded, with news accounts seeming to treat beheading as an unremarkable way to dispatch someone. Again, not by swift blow - but by sawing through bone and sinew.)
These killers are, of course, something different from mere executioners. They're sadists and psychopaths. On the other hand, mere sadists and psychopaths generally practice in private. Even the most heinous acts of wartime cruelty are more commonly done under the protection of war's famous fog. This is a much grander level of perverseness. These killers are showoffs - actors, even. Wild child exhibitionists, made delirious by the combination of blood and publicity, which, of course, pretty much defines a terrorist. This is a message of personal grandiosity. But it's also a more generalized and commonplace message of our time, that such violence - this willingness to commit public acts of extraordinary havoc and cruelty - transmutes power to the powerless. This message apparently requires ever-more-unimaginable levels of brutality and intimidation.
These publicized deeds surely affect the political ground game - at least when it is an American who's the victim - less, perhaps, because politicians have confronted the horror of these atrocities than out of a greater notion of being provoked too far by them. No powerful person wants to seem helpless. And that is, of course, the sought-after response. The World Trade Center bombers might fairly claim credit for the U.S. intervention in Iraq and hence today's conflagration in the Muslim world.
But what is the actual effect on people who really see a beheading? And by now millions must have experienced this viral charnel house.
Opponents of capital punishment have sometimes argued that if executions are to be done, they should be done publicly, that the larger world ought to look such death in the face - we would then be horrified enough to end capital punishment. This would, of course, seem to assume some substantial human progress from the many millennia when executions were live events staged for their theatrical as well as cautionary value.
Indeed, it is yet quite unclear which way social media will take us with regard to human conduct.
Does social media compel the world to rise in revulsion, having seen the unseeable? (And to do what, exactly? Bomb, invade and continue the cycle of revulsion?)
Do the forces of propriety and, also, of social media's own self-interest, make it vastly more difficult to surface such videos and see such evil? Fair to assume, this is the burning discussion at Twitter and YouTube at this very moment - quite a hard subject for people whose business is built precisely on not assuming moral, intellectual or even logistical responsibility (how can we be expected to police the world?).
Or do social media and cheap video return us to seeing death as an extraordinary spectacle? Does social media, in all its abstract relationships, now make beheading and other arcane forms of physical horror and debasement just further symbolic gestures?
I confess with mixed feelings of shame and fascination to having watched in the last few days beheading after beheading until I could take no more, or anyway until I had exhausted the novelty of the genre.
The concern about film and video, through most of their history, has been that they would ultimately show too much, more than sober and rational and correct people could reasonably be expected to handle.
Read the original story: Wolff: The snuff film war