When I heard that Facebook was allowing video clips of extreme violence – such as decapitation – I was shocked. Now, according to BBC News, Facebook has removed the offensive clip two days after putting it up. Instead, it will investigate whether the person posting the item is “sharing it responsibly”, such as accompanying it with a warning and sharing it with an age-appropriate audience. Facebook comments: “We have examined recent reports of graphic content and have concluded that this content improperly and irresponsibly glorifies violence. For this reason we have removed it.”
I am still horrified that Facebook could have thought it was ever appropriate to permit clips of beheadings. For a start, it is a cruel and unusual form of execution, largely associated with Islamist terrorists or Mexican drug gangs, and you don’t need to see an image to imagine how horrible such a death must be. Second, to photograph it at all seems an exercise in the pornography of violence. Even though such images might be taken as a matter of historical record or witness, it is impossible to distribute them to the general public without an element of – well, macabre interest on the part of the viewer. Finally, Facebook is a social networking site; how tragic to post such images, even for laudable purposes, alongside all the other millions of images put up on Facebook; it trivialises them. Just as evil can become banal, so can images of violence.
Interestingly, A Mighty Heart, the 2007 film of the death of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street journalist who was captured and then decapitated by a terrorist group in Pakistan, was sensitively done in this respect; it did not show his imprisonment and torture, nor the gruesome way he died – though the audience was very aware of the shock waves of visceral disbelief and recoil when the facts were revealed. We did not need to “see” what happened; the face of Angelina Jolie, who played Pearl’s widow, Mariane, was enough.
Yet sometimes, if rarely, there are appalling images the public ought to see. Reading the LifeSiteNews report by Catherine Shenton, “Mamie Till: refusing the cover-up”, about the brutal murder of her son, Emmett, it was clear that his mother’s determination that the world should see what white racists had done to her son helped to change the climate in America and led to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Briefly: Emmett Till, a teenage African-American living in Chicago in 1955, went south that summer to Mississippi to visit his cousins. He was abducted for innocently whistling at a white woman in a grocery store, beaten “beyond recognition”, shot in the head and his naked corpse was tied to a cotton gin fan with barbed wire, then thrown in a local river. He was identified by his ring.
His mother insisted that his body be returned to Chicago. She also insisted that the sealed coffin be opened and that there should be an open casket funeral. She said: “Let the world see what I’ve seen. We have averted our eyes for to long, turning away from the ugly reality facing us as a nation.” Tens of thousands of people filed past the open coffin and saw Emmett Till’s mutilated body. The photographs were published in magazines across the US; they were regarded as a “major catalyst” in changing people’s attitudes towards racism.
In 1955, before Facebook, TV news programmes, digital cameras and all the other ways the media now makes photographs instantly accessible throughout the world, people were not desensitised to images as they are today. I doubt there was much voyeurism among those shocked and silent thousands who paid tribute to Emmett Till’s open casket. Yet one can hardly deny that, alongside its entirely innocent social networking aspects, a certain voyeurism is intrinsic to Facebook.
The debate about decapitations raises other troubling questions: why is there a ban in the media on showing babies dismembered by abortion? Why can people, under certain conditions, view images of decapitation on Facebook, but pro-lifers in this country receive harsh complaints and protests from the public when they try to show the visual truth about abortion? All civilised people know that decapitation is barbaric. But they don’t know that late-term abortions are also barbaric. Why is there a conspiracy of silence not to let the public see what “a woman’s right to choose” actually entails, yet there is a lively debate on the morality of showing brutal executions?