The handful of controversial military events in the last few years—gruesome beheading videos, photographs of the torture at Abu Ghraib, footage of the 2007 Baghdad helicopter attacks that made WikiLeaks famous—have all been so powerful not just for what they show, but for how unlike the everyday media depictions of combat and warfare they were.
The vulgarization of media publishing tools have made it so that we no longer have to live inside the cautiously curated spheres of corporate media. In Woolwich, we see all the strange new speak of our War on Terror rhetoric joined to an act of horror that reminds us all of the moral and ethical chess games we've played in the safely distant suburbs of the west are ultimately still about killing other people, and that when committed to a political agenda of killing people, for good or bad reasons, those people can sometimes kill back.
While we argue in abstract about the virtues of waging war against terrorists, we live in communities that value peaceful conflict resolution above everything. This distinction is captured in the Woolwich video, the confrontation between two worlds—the attackers acting out to an extreme, while the on-lookers avoid any kind of action at all, and the one brave woman who does approach peacefully reasons with the man. She does not attack or incite others to join her, but acknowledges that there is a larger social system that will do that on the town's behalf, that they will only fight as an absolute last case option.
The video captures the moral hypocrisy of our culture at large, we cling to peaceful ideals on the individual level and easily slip into violent barbarism when drawn into abstract media debates. When the old censorious checks on what is allowable for broadcast are gone, we discover the horror of this duality, and the extent to which our thoughtless arguments justify things we could never tolerate in person.
Michael Thomsen is Complex.com's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, n+1, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.