Downloading death

Millions will watch Nicholas Berg's tragic murder online not for prurient reasons or to gain insight into evil. They will watch because of the overwhelming urge to be in the know.

By Neal Gabler

Published May 13, 2004 9:03PM (EDT)

Earlier this week when, like millions of others, I logged on to the Internet and accessed a site with video of the young Pennsylvania businessman Nicholas Berg being beheaded, my hand hovered above my mouse momentarily. Do I double-click or don't I? Do I really want to see a man being beheaded or don't I? In the end, I decided that I didn't need to see a decapitation, that I could easily imagine what it would look like, and that images of Berg's death would not inform or deepen my understanding of Iraq or terrorism or the American mission or of brutality generally. I would just be another voyeur.

But millions, I am sure, did not share the same compunction or, if they did, double-clicked anyway to see what amounted to a snuff film. As far as do we or don't we, it wasn't lost on many of us that at the same time Nick Berg was being beheaded continuously on the Internet for anyone who cared to watch, members of Congress were looking over grisly photographs of abuse from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq -- photographs that the Pentagon would not release publicly, on the basis that no good could come of doing so, and much harm could. No one but the congressmen and senators, the Pentagon decided, needed to see these images.

Whenever particularly gruesome photographs or videos are either made available or embargoed, a moral debate automatically rages over the effect on the American psyche. On the one side are those who argue that these images should not be viewed. At best they can only inure us to atrocity, coarsen our sensibilities, desensitize us. By framing the violence as television and distancing us from it, they make us more willing to tolerate the heinous. At worst they trivialize it and turn it into just another prurient entertainment, the Nick Berg Show.

On the other side are those who argue that viewing cruelty is admittedly awful but may be necessary because it compels us to face evil more forcefully than anything else possibly can, compels us to see how the world really operates and what is really at stake, not just in Iraq or in the war on terrorism or in any specific situation but in life itself. Just as Thomas Aquinas believed that one needed evil to understand good, so too may one need tragedy to understand the human condition. Otherwise one lives in a gloss. This was the argument deployed when the horrific images of the Holocaust were first being released 50 years ago. One needed to see them because one's imagination could not comprehend the enormity of the crime. One needed to see them to bear witness.

And so the issue has been framed once again with the Nick Berg tape and the Abu Ghraib photographs. We should see them. We shouldn't see them. But as this debate continues, there is another possibility -- the possibility that images like these neither inure us nor sensitize us and that this dichotomy may even be an antiquated way of thinking about them. There may be an entirely different and new sensibility at work that beckons one to see the horror without experiencing any moral or psychological aftertaste. That sensibility is the irresistible urge to feel knowing -- to see what other people in the prow of culture are seeing. You watch Nick Berg being beheaded or you go on the Internet to see the unpublished photos from Abu Ghraib because you know other people are doing so and you don't want to feel left out.

Ours is certainly not the first generation to value knowingness. Those supposedly "in the know" have always been a kind of information elite, and more democratically speaking, gossip, in large measure, is predicated on the notion that a good many people want to know what's going to happen before it is publicly announced or just want to know what others hope to hide. But in a society like ours where there is a glut of information -- so much to know and so many venues from which to know it -- knowingness has become one of the newest and most powerful forms of status. Talk to any teenager and you are likely to be staggered by how much he or she knows -- the music of the most obscure rock stars, the dating habits of the most obscure television performers, the names of the most obscure clothing designers -- virtually all of it, by the teen's own admission, useless in any intrinsic sense but useful in the sense that it is empowering among other teenagers. Knowing all this cultural effluvia is like being captain of the football team or head cheerleader. Not to know is to be condemned to eternal geekdom.

But knowingness is not just a status; it is a force that is increasingly driving the culture. If Marshall McLuhan was wrong, as I believe he was, and technology does not determine culture so much as culture determines technology, then the Internet might be regarded as a knowing machine designed expressly to satisfy the ever-growing community of individuals who need to know in order to empower themselves. One can find anything on the Internet, from the Paris Hilton tape to the Taguba report to the Nick Berg decapitation, and those who watch these tapes or read these documents have the satisfaction of knowing that they have joined a new band of cognoscenti. Indeed, the images on the Internet seemed to advance the Abu Ghraib and Nick Berg stories not because seeing is believing or because everyone wants visuals but because mainstream print outlets don't have the same cachet of knowingness as the Internet, where you have to navigate your way to the plum -- itself a form of knowingness. So the Internet not only provides the opportunity to see what one could not see elsewhere; it plays to an emerging sensibility that regards finding and then watching these images not as horrors to be shunned or terrible realities to be viewed but as pieces of information one must see because not to see them is to be left out, which is why the hand may not linger long over the mouse before double-clicking. It is less voyeurism than a kind of validation. Man, have you seen the Nick Berg tape?

All of this wrests Nick Berg and Abu Ghraib from the old moral context and categories. There may have been a time when knowing led to knowledge, which made considerations about the cultural and psychological impact of what one saw or read seem appropriate. But now knowing is an end in itself, and a debate over the effects of watching abominations may be irrelevant in a society where information no longer exists to be assessed but only to be accessed.

Neal Gabler

Neal Gabler is the author of "Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality."

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